Depression, Bipolar Disorder May Increase Risk for Dementia Later in Life

old woman suffering from dementia

Some people accept depression as a part of aging. They believe it is not uncommon that as people age, their brain functioning slows and depression may settle in. Caregivers may not be concerned because they believe it is inevitable and normal. But Dr. Deborah Barnes of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and University of California asserts that depression is not a normal part of the aging process, and left untreated it could put the older adult at greater risk for dementia.

Other untreated mental illnesses may also put people at risk for dementia. Researchers have found that those who have bipolar disorder may also be vulnerable to dementia as senior citizens. Researchers recommend early diagnosis and treatment to help lessen this risk for cognitive problems later in life.

In a study with more than 13,000 people, Barnes found links between middle-age depression and older-age dementia. She was lead author on the study published in a recent issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The study began back in 1964 with adults aged 40 to 55. These adults were given a health exam and were questioned about depression symptoms. The same participants were followed until 2009, when the average age of the group was 81.

Barnes and her colleagues found that participants who had depression during their middle age years were 20 percent more likely to have dementia later in life. If these same participants also suffered from depression later in life, they were 70 percent more likely to develop dementia.

Depression causes vascular changes in the brain. Barnes and her colleagues believe that depression, especially chronic depression, may increase the risk of vascular dementia.

When the researchers examined the links between depression and Alzheimer’s, they found different links. Alzheimer’s causes neurodegenerative problems that make people start losing their memories and interferes with their normal cognitive functioning. Barnes believed that in this instance, depression might be an early symptom of Alzheimer’s rather than a cause of it.

Being aware of the signs of depression can help people better notice the sign of developing Alzheimer’s or may help lessen the risk for developing vascular dementia.

In a separate study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, researchers studied the relationship between bipolar disorder in middle age and the development of dementia. A much smaller study by scale, this study followed 47 participants who had bipolar disorder. All of the participants were over 50 years old.

This mental disorder also seemed to influence the onset of dementia symptoms later in life. When the participants were examined in later years, they were found to have poorer memory capacity, cognitive functioning, and slower information processing than the participants without bipolar.

Future studies may find more links that can help doctors, families, and friends be aware of how untreated depression and bipolar can cause greater harm in later life and can encourage them to find help for their mental illness as soon as possible

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