Onset of depression during adulthood may signal memory problems ahead, from the Harvard Women's Health Watch

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People who first experience depression during middle age or later are at increased risk of eventually developing dementia. Ignoring sadness or dismissing it as a normal side effect of aging could allow potentially treatable memory issues to progress unchecked.

Depression's gloomy tentacles can extend into all aspects of life. They may even reach ahead in time, increasing the risk for dementia. The October 2012 Harvard Women's Health Watch explores the link between the onset of depression in middle age or later and memory loss.

Dementia is more common among people who become depressed in middle age or later in life than among those who aren't depressed, according to a report in Archives of Psychiatry. In that study, age of onset was also linked to the type of dementia—individuals with late-life depression had double the risk for developing Alzheimer's disease, while those whose depression began in midlife faced three times the risk for vascular dementia (which is caused by poor blood flow in the brain).

Depression is often overlooked in older adults. "I think older individuals are more in denial about having depressive illness," says Dr. M. Cornelia Cremens, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a geriatric psychiatrist in the senior health practice at Massachusetts General Hospital. "They'll say, ‘Well, I'm 83 years old—who wouldn't be depressed?‘" Ignoring sadness or dismissing it as a normal side effect of aging could allow potentially treatable memory issues to progress unchecked.

"If somebody appears to have the beginning of dementia and they are depressed, it's very important to treat their depression, and to treat it as aggressively as possible," Dr. Cremens says.

Although there aren't proven methods for preventing dementia, strategies such as treating depression and following healthy lifestyle habits, including exercising, eating a healthy diet, and keeping the mind active with social outings and games, may help.

Read the full-length article: "Depression: Early warning of dementia?"

Also in the October 2012 issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch:

  •     5 of the best exercises you'll ever do
  •     What to do when headaches won't go away
  •     Making smart prevention decisions: Why mammograms matter
  •     Bladder training for incontinence

Harvard Women's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/womens or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).


Media: Contact Natalie Ramm at hhpmedia(at)hms.harvard.edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

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