For most of his life, my father was calm and happy. “No sweat,” he’d say when the furnace blew up or the car wouldn’t start. Even when his retail lumberyard burned down, or when his parents died, he seemed to take a Zen attitude towards life. But after he retired, I thought he was more pessimistic than usual. Was this somehow related to his later dementia?
I didn’t think much about mood, depression and dementia until I realized it was a topic of discussion on some of the caregiver blogs. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Deb Peterson writes about how her mother’s depression after the death of several family members seemed to mark the beginning of her dementia. Paula Martinac (Dementia Blues) reports both her parents were depressed before their declines into dementia. But many people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia have no history of depression. Gail Rae Hudson (The Mom & Me Journals), who describes her mother’s condition as “dementia lite,” doesn’t think her mom has ever been depressed.
Was the change in Dad’s mood [I wouldn’t call it depression] a normal reaction to retirement? Or was it an understandable reaction to subtle signs of dementia the rest of us didn’t see? It makes sense that some dementia patients become melancholy when they realize they’re having memory problems.
But rather than dementia causing depression, it seems to be more of a two-way process. Several studies show a history of depression may increase your risk of developing dementia later in life:
• A large retrospective study at the University of Limburg in the Netherlands (published in 1996) and another at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark (2003) found associations between a history of depression and dementia
• When researchers at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago followed Catholic clergy aged 65+ for seven years, they concluded that each depressive symptom reported over the seven year period increased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by an average of 19%, and increased average cognitive decline by 24%.
• Scientists at Boston University School of Medicine found a significant association between depression symptoms and Alzheimer’s in 1953 patients with Alzheimer’s disease and 2093 of their non-demented relatives. The association was most significant when depression symptoms first occurred within one year of the onset of Alzheimer’s, but there was still a modest association even when depression first happened more than 25 years before the onset of Alzheimer’s. [free registration required to view this article]
Other studies have not been as definitive. University of Ottawa researchers found a weak, but not statistically significant association between a history of depression and Alzheimer’s disease after following more than 4600 Canadians aged 65 and older over a five year period.
This year, a team of researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and the Wien Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders at Mt. Sinai Medical Center published the results of a systematic review and analysis of the research on this topic. Analyzing data from over 100,000 patients in 22 studies, the researchers concluded that a history of depression does seem to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, although the absolute risk is still small. Their data also showed relatively long times between depressive episodes and the onset of Alzheimer’s, suggesting that depression may be an independent risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s rather than signaling the onset of the disease.
For dementia patients with a previous history of depression, it’s also likely their dementia will be more severe than that of patients with no such history. In a recent study, pathologists compared the brains of Alzheimer’s patients who had lifelong histories of depression to the brains of Alzheimer’s patients who hadn’t had depression. The pathologists found that the brains of patients with a history of depression had more of the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease than those of patients who hadn’t had depression. This increase in plaques and tangles seemed to correlate with the severity of memory loss.
If depression and Alzheimer’s are linked, then maybe there’s a common underlying cause. Several studies point to cortisol, a stress hormone, as the possible culprit. The thinking is that stress causes the body to release cortisol, and that chronic stress leads to the chronically high levels of cortisol sometimes associated with cognitive impairment and shrinkage of some areas of the brain.
The obvious question is whether lowering cortisol improves memory. I’ve always had trouble navigating, and this problem gets worse when I’m upset. Could I take something to lower my levels of this hormone before I drive an unfamiliar route? It turns out that for rats, lowering cortisol levels does improve their performance in mazes.
I was disappointed to find it’s not so simple for humans. In a small trial of seventeen people, a team headed by researchers from McGill University in Canada found that manipulating cortisol levels did have an effect on memory in some people, but that effect was dependent on historical cortisol levels in each participant or person. If the individual patient had had moderate cortisol levels for a period of five years, blocking cortisol levels actually decreased memory, and adding back cortisol reversed this problem. For patients with historically high cortisol levels and existing memory problems, blocking cortisol didn’t improve memory, although increasing cortisol levels made their memory problems worse. This could be because it’s the cumulative, long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol that hurt the brain, rather than the level at any one time. Some scientists think problems are caused by the malfunctioning of the receptors for cortisol, rather than the hormone itself.
So, the cortisol and stress connection is intriguing, but at least so far, hasn’t yielded the magic formula to fix dementia.
One of reasons it’s hard to untangle the relationship of depression and dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is that both diseases may have multiple underlying causes. “I think the evidence shows that there may be complex relationships among stress, cortisol (and other neuroendocrine substances), inflammatory markers, cardiovascular disease, and cognition,” says Dr. Ray Ownby, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and the lead author of the scientific review of research on the topic. “Since cardiovascular disease may be related to Alzheimer's disease, it seems quite possible that stress, cortisol, inflammation, depression, and AD may all be related, but we don’t know how.”
Raymond L. Ownby, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A.
But even if stress, cortisol and depression were only partially responsible for dementia, could they be considered “modifiable risk factors” for Alzheimer’s disease? I asked Dr. Ownby if treating depression could actually lessen a person’s chances of developing dementia.
“The possibility that treating depression might lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease is intriguing,” he says, “but there simply isn't any evidence that I'm aware of on the subject, other than the possibility that antidepressants can lower levels of some chemicals that may be related to dementing illnesses.”
What about the idea that depression can masquerade as dementia? When I first started researching my father’s memory problems, several web sites mentioned “pseudo-dementia.” According to some of these sites, once you treat the depression, the dementia is reversed. But the diagnosis and prevalence of pseudo-dementia is now in question, and at least one study has shown that many people who seemed to have reversible dementia [their memory problems improved after their depression was treated] later developed [non-reversible] dementia.
Dad didn’t have a history of depression, and it’s pretty clear most of his dementia was related to cerebral amyloid angiopathy. But if he had lived long enough, depression might have been more of a problem. Treating any depression may have helped his dementia, at least for a while. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.