Dementia | Depression and Alzheimer’s Disease

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What is depression?

When doctors talk about depression, they mean the medical illness called major depression. Someone who has major depression has symptoms like those listed in the box below nearly every day, all day, for 2 weeks or longer. There is also a minor form of depression that causes less severe symptoms. Both have the same causes and treatment.

If you're depressed, you may also have headaches, other aches and pains, digestive problems and problems with sex. An older person who has depression may feel confused or have trouble understanding simple requests.

Symptoms of depression

  • No interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy, including sex
  • Feeling sad or numb
  • Crying easily or for no reason
  • Feeling slowed down or feeling restless and irritable
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Unintended weight loss or gain
  • Trouble recalling things, concentrating or making decisions
  • Headaches, backaches or digestive problems
  • Sleeping too much, or having problems sleeping
  • Feeling tired all of the time
  • Thoughts about death or suicide

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. Dementia is a brain disorder caused by damage of the brain cells that makes it hard for people to remember, learn and communicate. These changes eventually make it hard for people to care for themselves. Alzheimer's disease may also cause changes in mood and personality.

Do people who have Alzheimer's disease become depressed?

Yes. Depression is very common among people who have Alzheimer's disease. In many cases, they become depressed when they realize that their memory and ability to function are getting worse.

Unfortunately, depression may make it even harder for a person who has Alzheimer's disease to function, to remember things and to enjoy life.

How can I tell if my family member who has Alzheimer's disease is depressed?

It may be difficult for you to know if your family member is depressed. You can look for some of the typical signs of depression, which include the following:

  • Not wanting to move or do things (called apathy)
  • Expressing feelings of worthlessness and sadness
  • Unintended weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping too much or having problems sleeping

Other signs of depression include crying and being unusually emotional, being angry or agitated, and being confused. Your family member who has Alzheimer's disease may refuse to help with his or her own personal care (for example, getting dressed or taking medicines). He or she may wander away from home more often.

Alzheimer's disease and depression have many symptoms that are alike. It can be hard to tell the difference between them. If you think that depression is a problem for your relative who has Alzheimer's disease, talk to his or her family doctor.

How can the doctor help?

The doctor will talk with your relative. The doctor will also ask you and other family members and caregivers whether the person has any new or changed behaviors. The doctor will check your relative and may wish to do some tests to rule out other medical problems. He or she may suggest medicines to help your family member feel better. The doctor may also have some advice for you and other family members and caregivers on how to cope. He or she may recommend support groups that can help you.

What medicines can help reduce depression?

Antidepressant medicines can be very helpful for people who have Alzheimer's disease and depression. These medicines can improve the symptoms of sadness and apathy, and they may also improve appetite and sleep problems. Don't worry -- these medicines are not habit-forming. The doctor may also suggest other medicines that can help reduce upsetting problems, such as hallucinations or anxiety.

What can I do to help my family member?

Try to keep a daily routine for your family member who has Alzheimer's disease. Avoid loud noises and overstimulation. A pleasant environment with familiar faces and things helps soothe fear and anxiety. Have a realistic expectation of what your family member can do. Expecting too much can make you both feel frustrated and upset. Let your family member help with simple, enjoyable tasks, such as preparing meals, gardening, doing crafts and sorting photos. Most of all, be positive. Frequent praise for your family member will help him or her feel better -- and it will help you as well.

As the caregiver of a person who has Alzheimer's disease, you must also take care of yourself. If you become too tired and frustrated, you will be less able to help your family member. Ask for help from relatives, friends and local community organizations. Respite care (short-term care that is given to the patient who has Alzheimer's disease in order to provide relief for the caregiver) may be available from your local senior citizens' group or a social services agency. Look for caregiver support groups. Other people who are dealing with the same problems may have some good ideas on how you can cope better and on how to make caregiving easier. Adult day care centers may be helpful. They can give your family member a consistent environment and a chance to socialize.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 04/14
Created: 09/00

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