Depression and Dementia in Older Adults

“The coexistence of depressive symptoms and cognitive decline in older adulthood is well established, whereby greater depressive symptoms are associated with poorer cognitive functioning and cognitive decline,” said Allison A.M. Bielak of the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian national University in Australia. “However, the mechanisms through which depressive symptoms relate to increased decline in perceptual speed are uncertain, and either end of the functioning spectrum may be driving the effect.” Bielak and her colleagues conducted a study to determine if the depressive symptoms predicted the cognitive impairment. “Rather than more depressive symptoms acting as a risk for cognitive decline, it may be that having few depressive symptoms serves as a protective factor against decline,” she said.

Experts theorize that depression can increase the risk for the development of dementia in a number of different ways. Specifically, the clinical symptoms of depression can cause damage to the hippocampal, resulting in a significant decrease in cognitive protective mechanisms that make an individual more vulnerable to the development of dementia and other psychological problems.

For their study, the researchers examined 1206 Australians over age 70. They assessed levels of depression and cognitive functioning using a questionnaire, a personal interview and a clinical evaluation. They measured the levels at five different times over 15 years. They found that the higher the levels of depressive symptoms, the faster the cognitive decline in these individuals. Because of the significantly high number of individuals being diagnosed with depression, as well as the increase of cases of dementia in older adults, the researchers believe the study offers valuable information. “The present findings that depressive symptoms appear to lead changes in perceptual speed might hence be valuable to understanding the development of the link between these clinical conditions,” said the team. Ultimately, they hope that further research will lead to treatments that delay or prevent the development of dementia in clients with depression.

Bielak, Allison A.M., Denis Gerstorf, Kim M. Kiely, Kaarin J. Anstey, and Mary Luszcz. “Depressive Symptoms Predict Decline in Perceptual Speed in Older Adulthood.”Psychology and Aging 26.3 (2011): 576-83. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Brianna Vaughan

    Brianna Vaughan

    September 19th, 2011 at 1:50 PM

    I didn’t know there was a physical decline like that inside the brain if you have depressive symptoms. That’s a little frightening. Does that mean if you’re depressed you can look forward to suffering from dementia in your old age? Lordy…

  • Walter Aldenado

    Walter Aldenado

    September 19th, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    So depression causes dementia? Who would have thought that two seemingly unrelated things could influence each other so heavily. I wish this study said at what age depression started to decrease cognitive function. Obviously a severely depressed child isn’t going to get dementia but where does this immunity end? 50? 60? 70? That is the part that would interest me the most.

    Cold hard facts, thats what I like to see in these kinds of studies. Real conclusions based on data that therapists can use to their advantage when treating patients. Now that we a cause for dementia we are one step closer to finding a cure. Hooray for science!

  • Max Winborne

    Max Winborne

    September 19th, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    @Brianna Vaughan: I don’t think the study claimed that connection between depression and dementia to be an iron-clad guarantee, Brianna. Nowhere does it say that one inevitably will lead to the other. So stop worrying. If you have depressive symptoms, you’ve just found another reason to get professional help in dealing with them, that’s all. :)

  • Charlotte


    September 19th, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    One of the big things that we must do for our older population then is to be aware of the things that they are facing and helping them to come to grips with this stage of their lives without allowing them to slip into depression. It is easy to ignore the signs but so much better for whole families if we recgnize and treat them early on rather than having to backpeddle and seek treatment after things have already gotten pretty bad.

  • Lou McCabe

    Lou McCabe

    September 19th, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    @Brianna: Did you read that and panic there? :) Take a deep breath and go over what the report said one more time. Having depression may make you physically more susceptible to dementia in later years. May make you, not will make you. That’s what it said and how I read it.

    And you missed the good news altogether at the end. “Ultimately, they hope that further research will lead to treatments that delay or prevent the development of dementia in clients with depression.”

  • RT


    September 19th, 2011 at 10:09 PM

    There is just so much about depression that we read. yet, most of us are depressed about so many things. it would be great if we can learn to have good coping techniques and if we practice them and become attuned to them, depression will not be able to get the better of us. its like exercise, but only in the mind and against depression! :)

  • Jillian


    September 20th, 2011 at 3:52 PM

    It seems that for older people these two things seem to go hand in hand. And what a sad ending this must be for the individual who suffers as well as for the families who have to watch the senior going through this. But it is good to know that with more research will hopefully come better awareness and treatment. We canb’t fix the things that we do not know about but if we all learn a little more then maybe we will have more to give back

  • geoff richards

    geoff richards

    September 21st, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    We are programmed to be social in nature and thus when depression strikes,it makes us feel bad.We’re just built that way.It is understandable that depression causes all these problems.Just another reason why the vast majority of people who give no importance to mental health should sit up and take notice.

  • Georgia


    November 11th, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    And of course, what could be more depressing for older people than constantly hearing how awful it is to get old. I would love to think that we still have a way to celebrate the twilight years.

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