Depression & Dementia

Posted on: February 10, 2015 | 0 Comments |

For my mother, there was no evidence or diagnosis of depression prior to the onset of dementia.  In cases like hers, the dementia can be misdiagnosed as depression or missed altogether.  The symptoms for early dementia and depression are very similar so one can see how this could happen.

  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Withdrawl from social situations
  • Apathy
  • Impaired thinking
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory issues

However, a majority of people who suffer from dementia also suffer from depression.  They seem to go hand in hand.  There is much research being conducted on this topic and studies have confirmed the correlation.

Many studies suggest that persons suffering from depression have a higher risk of developing an irreversible dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, however there is not conclusive proof of the cause and effect relationship.  It is also thought that persons who have Alzheimer’s disease may become depressed as the brain degrades during the disease process.   So the cause and effect may actually go both ways.

There are several logical reasons for the onset of depression to be concurrent with the onset or diagnosis of dementia.  Alzheimer’s is an organic brain disease that degrades brain tissue, thus reducing and/or eliminating functionality.  As this happens, the brain’s neurotransmitters are also affected.

Neurotransmitter production and levels are known to be tied to depression.  So this is a physiological impact.

Other contributors are environmental; for example, a lack of purpose, boredom and loneliness.  The significance of these issues is often overlooked, but try to put yourself in the situations listed below…

Loss of Purpose
Having purpose in life is a core need.  But imagine what kind of impact it might have if:

  • You loved your job and your career was a large part of your identity, but you can no longer work or function at that executive level
  • Your life revolved around raising your children and being a great parent, but your children are all grown and now they have to take care of you

If you have ever been too sick to do anything, but not sick enough to just sleep, you have an idea of what this may feel like.  Now imagine that lasting indefinitely and there was nothing you could do about it.

What would it be like if:

  • You used to love to read but now you can no longer follow the plot line or remember what you already read
  • You can no longer enjoy TV or movies because of memory lapses
  • You loved playing cards but can’t follow the game (which can also cause shame, embarrassment, and social withdrawl)
  • When out with friends you get confused and can’t track the conversation
  • Even seemingly simple tasks frustrate and confuse you

This concept can change when people have dementia.  My mother was always very independent.  Once my siblings and I were grown and out of the house she lived alone and liked it that way.  She enjoyed her solitude.

However, she was also able to engage with friends and family when she chose to do so. She could occupy herself with many hobbies and she felt safe and secure in her ability to care for herself.  Once a person has dementia that all changes: Mom didn’t control much of her day, her activities were limited and often frustrating, and she no longer felt secure in her health and independence.

In addition to all of this, some people in the early stages of dementia are able to comprehend their diagnosis and the fate that awaits them.  My mother watched her mother die of Alzheimer’s, so she knew what to expect — and it terrified her.

One more complication is that dementia can impact a person’s ability to articulate or even recognize what they are feeling.  So a person who is suffering from depression may say they are not depressed when asked how they feel by family members or physicians.

Shame or the stigma of depression may also be a reason for someone to state that they are not depressed even though they are experiencing all of the symptoms.

In later stages, when communication is even more difficult, it is common for depression to manifest as agitation.  Often, this new onset of agitation is blamed on the disease progression.

The good news is that there are multiple mediations available that can treat depression and improve a person’s quality of life.  Finding the right medication can be arduous but I have found it to be a worthwhile pursuit.

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Jamie's Journey

In 2007, Jamie Wilson (founder and CEO of Dementia Services Group) began the complicated process of helping her once-independent mother adjust to life with dementia.

Jamie's Journey is deeply personal, but also universal. We hope that her trials and triumphs will shed light on the emotional and logistical issues that come with caring for someone with dementia.

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