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Those who have dementia also frequently suffer from depression. The link has been proven multiple times, but researchers now ponder which comes first-the depression or the dementia. A recent study in the Archives of General Psychiatry investigated this quandary of whether depression was a risk factor for dementia or an early symptom of it. The interesting outcome found that they both can come first-it depends on the type of dementia a person experiences.

Risk Factor or Early Symptom

Researchers studied how depression in mid-life and late in life was associated with the development of dementia. Their hope was to find whether depression was a risk factor or early symptom of depression. Dr. Deborah Barnes of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and University of California studied more than 13,000 people during their research.

Participants were first evaluated between the ages of 40 and 55, between 1964 and 1973. Twenty years later, researchers checked the participants for depression. By 2003 to 2009, the average age of the participants was 81 years old. At this time, the researchers checked to see if the seniors had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Vascular Dementia and Depression in Midlife

There are different sub-types of dementia, and researchers found that depression affected these types differently. Vascular Dementia is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain, while Alzheimer’s is caused by protein deposits that impair proper brain function.

Participants who suffered from chronic depression in mid-life and later in life were three times as likely to develop vascular dementia then those who did not have depression. In these cases, depression was a noticeable risk factor for dementia.

Alzheimer’s Disease and Depression Later in Life

While depression may make a person more susceptible to acquiring vascular dementia, depression is often an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers revealed that participants who had depression late in life were twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s then those who did not have depression.

Some of the neurons that are degenerating during the early stages of Alzheimer’s may affect more than just cognitive ability and memory loss. Some of those damaged neurons may affect mood and may start pulling that person into a spiral of depression.

Early Treatment of Depression May Slow Dementia

While more research is needed to reaffirm these links, researchers believe these results may have a huge impact in finding better treatment for those with dementia.

Overall, those who experienced depression during mid-life had a 20 percent greater chance of developing dementia. Those who experienced depression later in life had a 70 percent greater chance of developing dementia. If participants experience depression in both mid-life and later in life, their chance of having dementia was as high as 80 percent.

Doctors caution that depression should not be ignored in both middle-aged and older adults. It is not a normal symptom of aging, but rather can be a risk factor for later dementia or a symptom that dementia is already developing.

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