Depression: How Big of a Risk Factor for Alzheimer's Is It?

It seems that there’s always something new popping up in a headline stating that this condition or that disease increases our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. While the constant barrage of negative information can be frustrating, it’s simply a byproduct of the intense research being done to discover the cause or causes of Alzheimer’s. That’s all good. For people with depression, however, seeing their illness on lists for traits that make them more likely to develop AD is worrisome. How seriously should people with depression take this information about which they can do little?

Don’t over-react to any one announcement of risk factors

The National Institutes of Health has this to say about a study that focused on just how much depression increases a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s:

“A personal history of depression has been related to increased risk for developing AD later in life, although this finding has not been universal. For example, some case-control studies have found a relation between a history of depression and risk for AD…A number of these studies, however, have potential biases that limit their interpretability. Most notably, case-control studies that are inherently retrospective may be biased by a greater recall of history of depression in patients with AD.”

While I’ve never suffered from clinical depression, I have a beloved family member who does. It scares me when I read that depression, which is only one of many health issues that have already made my loved one’s life exceptionally difficult, may also raise his risk for Alzheimer’s disease in the future.

Sadly, treatments for depression are not where they should be. In fact, the brain research being done for Alzheimer’s gives me hope that while searching for how Alzheimer’s works in the brain, many other illnesses that present themselves as mental will get a boost toward understanding and treatment. Therefore, I try to look at the positive side that Alzheimer’s research may help discover additional methods of treating depression before Alzheimer's becomes an issue for him.

Stigma is a problem for mental illnesses as well as dementia

One thing that depression and Alzheimer’s, as well as other types of dementia, have in common is they all carry a stigma. The brain is part of the body. Illness is illness. Yet our insurance system and much of our medical system separates out mental illness from physical illness which only exacerbates the stigma issue.

Many people will not seek help for depression or other mental illness because of the stigma attached. Many people will not seek help with possible Alzheimer’s for the same reason. This is one connection that the two diseases do share. Therefore, working to eliminate this stigma will help everyone involved, perhaps encouraging people with depression to get treated and those with Alzheimer’s to seek early intervention.

Lifestyle changes likely impact Alzheimer’s and can help depression, as well

It can be exceptionally difficult to focus on improvements in diet, exercise and socialization when one is clinically depressed. Yet these very activities can help lift some of the depression for certain people. These same lifestyle changes of improved diet , exercise and socialization are thought to be a helpful deterrent for Alzheimer’s symptoms. So, once again, we see a correlation in something positive that people can do. Yet, these changes are good for the whole body, so it can't be taken as strict evidence of an association between depression and Alzheimer's.

Interpretation of evidence tricky

As the NIH study suggested, interpretation of evidence is difficult when it comes to determining if something as hard to pin down as depression has an effect on one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

I’m not going to worry about the future of my loved one’s potentially increased risk for Alzheimer’s. Instead, I’ll continue to help him search for a method that will help the depression he now lives with. If Alzheimer’s research in the future finds a definitive correlation between the two, I hope that the same research will have better methods of treating depression so that it’s no longer an Alzheimer's risk.

Funding Alzheimer's research could, in my opinion, help scientists find answers to many questions about diseases that manifest themselves in the brain. For this reason, everyone has a stake in Alzheimer's research. Pressuring your representatives to increase funding for Alzheimer's may do more than just help people who develop dementia. It may also help those with mental illness.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at