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Alzheimer’s, depression, and your parents

Written by: Michelle Nicols

As caregivers of our aging parents, we may sometimes over exaggerate or underestimate their behaviours. But as caregivers and despite how emotionally challenging it may be, doctors rely on our honest and unskewed reports of the aging adult’s behaviour in diagnosing the issue at stake.

Varying studies claim that depression leads to dementia, conversely other studies claim that dementia leads to depression. So it’s easy and commonplace to mistake one illness for another or misinterpreting a combination of the two – but differentiating what the senior is suffering from will result in a more effective treatment.

Seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s and depression may share these similar symptoms:
•    Isolated behaviour
•    Memory loss
•    No longer enjoying once loved hobbies
•    A change in sleeping patterns such as too much or too little sleep
•    Impaired thought process

Key signs that a patient is suffering from depression rather than dementia include feelings of worthlessness, guiltiness, long-lasting (weeks) feelings of sadness/hopelessness throughout the day, long-lasting (weeks) changes in sleep pattern, and long-lasting (weeks) changes to diet, energy and concentration. Furthermore repeated thoughts of death and/or self-harm is another symptom more commonly seen in depression.

It is more likely a case of dementia if the senior’s mood typically uplifts throughout the day or with social stimulation and if the loss of interest in activities, upset sleeping patterns and acute increase or decrease of appetite happens gradually over months – even years. Note that thoughts of self-harm are uncommon.

Risk factors for depression include:
•    Mobility impairing life events such as stroke, broken bones
•    Being single or widowed
•    Diminishing social support
•    And even being female

Risk factors for dementia are:
•    Age: developing dementia increases past the age of 65
•    Family history: chances are greater if there is a family history of dementia, however many people with family history do not develop symptoms

Some modifiable risk factors for dementia are:
•    Smoking, obesity, high blood pressure
•    Obesity or lack of physical activity
•    Preventing head injuries

Researchers say there is no guarantee against developing dementia but maintain strong brain health is helpful. The Alzheimer Society of Canada has an entire section dedicated to building and maintaining brain health including advice on diet, activities and other lifestyle choices.

According to the Society, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. However, there are medications available that can help the patient cope with and/or slow down the symptoms. There are also varying treatment options for those suffering from depression ranging from drugs to different therapeutic sessions. Additionally, there are specific drugs that doctors may prescribe if it is a combination of both illnesses.

In addition to medically supervised treatment, it’s paramount to the senior’s health that caregivers and family members can provide a safe, support environment.

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