Is it Dementia or Depression? Checklists to Tell the Two Apart


As someone ages, things change in the person’s body and mind. He might start to think slower or make mistakes; she may just seem “different” to those who know her well. While some of these things may be easily attributed to dementia, in fact, the elderly person may be suffering from depression instead.

How to know which one is causing a loved one suffering? The best way is to be able to differentiate the signs and symptoms of each illness. Knowing the signs to look for can help point to appropriate treatment.

The Common Signs of Dementia

Some 7 to 8 percent of older people do experience severe mental decline due to dementia, and some 10 to 15 percent experience some cognitive impairment. As older people reach the 80s and 90s, the percentages increase to some 30 percent to 50 percent experiencing some form of dementia. Figures from the Alzheimer’s Association show that more than 5 million Americans have dementia, with a projected tripling of this amount by the year 2050.

The most common signs of dementia include:

  • Loss of memory that may not be evident to the sufferer but is evident to family and friends
  • Difficulty with communication
  • Difficulty with multi-tasking or handling problems with more than one step
  • Decline in motor skills
  • A sudden state of confusion
  • A static mood that does not seem sad, angry, or characterized by any other emotion most of the time

The Common Signs of Depression

The Centers for Disease Control note that about 5 percent of the elderly who still live at home suffer from depression, while around 12 – 13 percent who receive home health care or need to be hospitalized suffer from it. Of course, just being elderly is not the only risk for this disease; if there is a family history or other medical issues that a person suffers from, the likelihood of suffering from the disease could increase.

The most common signs of depression include:

  • Difficulty with memory, but the person recognizes the problem and is concerned about it
  • Difficulty stabilizing moods, spending most of the time in a sad mood or a “funk”
  • Difficulty concentrating at times
  • Speech might be slower, but not too impeded
  • Lack of interest in activities that he or she once loved
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lack of energy

These lists show that there are many similarities between the two diseases, but that they have distinctions. Issues with dementia are focused on memory and motor skills that consistently decline. If a person suffers from depression, however, difficulty with fine motor skills or memory will occur sporadically, in concert with the depression. Once a person receives treatment for the mood disorder, these issues usually clear up.  A person with dementia, on the other hand, will have more and more difficulty as time goes by.

It may not appear that a loved one suffers from dementia because he or she can remember things way back from childhood; if, however, the person has trouble remembering what he just ate five minutes ago, he or she could be suffering from the start of some form of dementia.

Seeing the Doctor

Both conditions require a visit to a medical health professional, as they can both be treated. Depression has an easier route of treatment, but that does not mean that dementia cannot be helped, especially when caught in its earliest stages. Sometimes dementia is not the primary issue, but a secondary issue as a result of another medical condition. Sometimes when the primary medical condition is treated, the dementia eases up. Things like infections, metabolic disorders, nutritional deficiencies, and adverse reactions to medication can cause a person to suffer the symptoms of dementia or even depression, even if the person is not actually suffering from the disorder.

Using the above checklist can help a caregiver decide what kind of physician to approach; it can also serve as a checklist of symptoms to report. This will help the doctor know where to start with the evaluation. Sometimes when it is a secondary issue, a more in-depth evaluation will be necessary in order to determine the primary medical issue. Other times, immediate treatment for depression or dementia is required in order to slow down the symptoms and help an elderly loved one enjoy the  golden years without undue suffering.


Alzheimer’s Association. 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Retrieved from Accessed on August 15, 2016.

Centers for Disease Control. Depression Is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older. Retrieved from Accessed on August 15, 2016.

Help Guide. Depression in Older Adults. Retrieved from Accessed on August 15, 2016.

Mace, N. L., and Rabins, P. V. (2012). The 36-Hour Day. Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted in New York: Grand Central Life & Style, 2012.

Mayo Clinic. Dementia. Retrieved from Accessed on August 15, 2016.