We all know how devastating a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can be. It can cause anxiety and depression. But, on the flip side, can mental distress increase the risk of developing dementia?
There has been an ongoing study in England of a group of 70,000 men and women who began the study at age 55. After 10 years of health questionnaires that covered questions about problems like anxiety, depression, poor social functioning, and loss of confidence, more than 10,000 study participants had died from various causes, and 455 had died with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
One theory about this phenomenon is that chronic levels of psychological distress may raise the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn, may have a toxic effect on the part of the brain that is critical for memory. The British researchers are recommending a further investigation into whether appropriate treatment of depression can reduce the risk of dementia.
American researchers believe that depression is a risk factor for dementia. They have reported that people with more symptoms of depression tend to suffer a more rapid decline in thinking and memory skills. But, this is merely an association. They feel that it did not prove that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.
However, Robert Wilson, senior neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University says, “Treating depression can reduce the risk of dementia in older people.” His study involved over 1,700 people, with an average age of 77, with no thinking or memory problems when the study began. At the end of eight years of screening for depression symptoms, half of the participants had developed symptoms of depression such as loneliness and lack of appetite. And, a total of 315 people (18%) developed dementia. It is important to note here, that on the flip side, the onset of dementia did not seem to be associated with an increase in depression. In fact, people developing dementia did not become more depressed; they actually became less depressed as the disease developed.
The bottom line of these studies seems to be that attending to depression is just like exercise or eating right. If you treat depression, you may be able to reverse some of the decline associated with depression.
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