Depression and Dementia Go Together Like Horse and Carriage: Signs and Symptoms to Monitor

Depression and Dementia

Scientists know depression and dementia are like a horse and carriage—they often go together. Harvard Medical School warns in its Health Watch newsletter that people who become depressed late in life have a 70% greater chance of developing dementia than those who do not. It also warns that people who have been depressed since middle age have an 80% greater chance of developing dementia than those who have not.

“Untreated depression can lead to many serious difficulties beyond dementia.”

It is very important to notice symptoms of depression in the elderly and to obtain help. Untreated depression can lead to many serious difficulties beyond dementia.

Depression in the elderly is not a natural byproduct of aging, although common sense may say it is. It is not pleasant to watch the decline of our own once youthful and healthy bodies. It is not pleasant to feel the impact of aging in the form of pain and discomfort, or to feel joints that cannot weather a rain storm or a jog, or to feel the frustration of being unable to perform the tasks or sports we once did with ease. Chronic illness at any age is mentally and physically debilitating, and the elderly are more susceptible to chronic diseases. They also have accumulated many losses over a lifetime, in friendships, locales, parents, and from grown-up children moving away. They have also possibly suffered the loss of a spouse and maybe even the loss of several pets. All this can cause the feeling of being blue at times.

Depression is different than occasional sadness. It is important to know the signs of depression in a senior so that it can be treated, thus potentially staving off dementia and intervening memory loss. It may also save a senior’s life. Researchers Reynolds, et al. reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that elderly people who experience just one episode of major depression have a high risk of incurring disability and even death. People over 70 who have an episode of major depression are in danger of further episodes as well as cognitive loss, illness and even suicide.

The following is a list of warning signs that may include elderly depression, according to the Harvard Medical School Health Watch Report:

  • Under-eating or overeating
  • Listlessness; exhaustion; fatigue; no energy or verve
  • Feeling overwhelmed; unable to cope; hopeless and helpless; no sense of self-efficacy or the ability to take control
  • Fuzziness; inability to concentrate; memory issues
  • Insomnia
  • Unexplained, chronic aches and pains
  • Negative outlook; crankiness
  • Little interest in activities

If your senior is showing these symptoms of depression, you should suggest counseling and mention it to the senior’s doctor so treatment can begin. Pharmacological treatment as well as counseling and cognitive therapy may help. Natural solutions, like exercise, sunshine, and St. John’s Wort may also serve until a doctor can be seen.

Don’t attribute such signs and symptoms to “old age.” These symptoms indicate that the senior is facing serious risks.





Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School (October 1, 2012). Depression—early warning of dementia? Available online at


Reynolds, Charles F. et al. (March 2006). Maintenance Treatment

of Major Depression in Old Age. New England Journal of Medicine (324) 1130-8. Available online at