Is Executive Dysfunction the Result of Old Age or Depression?

Memory recall and information processing can begin to slow as people age. Words that used to come easily may need to be searched for as people enter their golden years. These and other cognitive deficiencies are normal signs of aging. But significant neurologic impairment is not. People with depression often have difficulty with cognitive skills such as information processing, memory, visual perception, and language, the same tasks that can present a challenge for some elderly individuals. Claire E. Sexton of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford in England wanted to determine how late-life depression (LLD) affected certain functions. Specifically, she wanted to know if neurologic changes that resulted from depression were responsible for deficits in language, memory, and visual tasks, or if these deficits were the result of executive dysfunctions.

Sexton evaluated the neurologic make-up of 25 control participants with no history of LLD and 36 individuals with LLD, all over age 60. She used magnetic resonance imaging in each participant to examine the frontal-striatal-limbic region, an area of the brain that has been shown to be related to executive function. She also assessed them for cognitive abilities relating to episodic memory, language, visual spatial tasks, executive function, and processing speed. After examination, Sexton found that the LLD participants had much more difficulty with language tasks, memory recall, processing speed, and executive function. The executive function and processing deficits were severe enough that they negatively influenced the language and memory capacities of the participants.

Specifically, over half of the LLD participants had significant deficits in at least one area of cognitive abilities, with executive functioning being the most common area of weakness, represented by 44% of the participants in this group. Sexton said, “Thus, findings support the importance of frontal-striatal-limbic connections in executive function in LLD.” She also found that decreases in processing speed led to impairments in language, visual capacities, and memory recall. Sexton believes these findings underscore the importance of evaluating neurologic deficits as potential symptoms of LLD in elderly clients.


Sexton, C. E., McDermott, L., Kalu, U. G., Herrmann, L. L., Bradley, K. M. (2012). Exploring the pattern and neural correlates of neuropsychological impairment in late-life depression. Psychological Medicine, 42.6, 1195-1202.

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  • Tiffany M

    May 19th, 2012 at 7:23 AM

    While I do think that many times the onset of depression can bring on some of these symptoms of memory loss, it is important to remember that old age is also a huge factor in this too. I would not wnat someone who truly is experiencing symptoms of dementia to only be diagnosed or treated as if they are only experiencing depression. Memory loss is something that can be very serious in older adults, and there are treatments for it, to at least slow down the progression, but it can’t be ignored or treated as something else entirely.

  • Britt

    May 19th, 2012 at 12:24 PM

    One thing that came to mind for me when I read this was that a lot of old people that I have come into contact with know in some ways that cognitively they are not quite as sharp as they used to be. Don’t you think that in some ways this could play a large part in the ensuing depression that you sometimes see? I know that if I were aware that I was losing much of my mental capabilities then I would be pretty depressed too.

  • maryann

    May 20th, 2012 at 5:38 AM

    If there is this much damage done to the brain and this is somehow related to a person’s depressive episodes, then I think that reasonably one could conclude thar depression can cause some of the confusion that is most often exhibited among a large portion of the elderly population.
    With this being said and brought to attention, maybe treating doctors could keep this in mind when they see these patients and can work with them to lessen the effects of depression maybe a little more quickly than has previously been attempted.

  • Anne

    May 20th, 2012 at 9:02 PM

    Hmm.The losses in ability could be due to depression, old age, or both. But is depression a result of old age? If so, then is that the reason why some people with positive outlook seem to be in better health in their later years than others?

  • Tatum

    May 21st, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    The more I read about getting old, the more I’m not convinced that I’m cut out for it!

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