Jul 31, 2014
The connection between Alzheimer's and depression has been known for years. The big mystery, though, is exactly how (and if) one affects the other. "Is the depression a consequence of the dementia? Do both problems develop from the same underlying problems in the brain? Or does the relationship of depression with dementia have nothing to do with dementia-related pathology?" asks Robert S. Wilson, PhD, neuropsychologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
But Wilson and his team have made a discovery that links depression as a major risk factor for Alzheimer's. They found that higher levels of depression accounted for 4.4 percent of the difference in decline that could not be attributed to damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. Plus, the more depressed individuals had more rapid decline in thinking and memory skills.
"These findings are exciting because they suggest depression truly is a risk factor for dementia, and if we can target and prevent or treat depression and causes of stress we may have the potential to help people maintain their thinking and memory abilities into old age," Wilson says.
To understand the connection, it's important to understand that depression isn't a disease—it's a symptom of inflammation, explains Gary Kaplan, DO, pain specialist and author of Total Recovery: Solving the Mystery of Chronic Pain and Depression.
"We also know without question that Alzheimer's is related to neuroinflammatory processes and for years we've been trying to figure out this chicken-egg question,' he says. "The fact is, according to this breakthrough study, long term neuroinflammation [like depression] can set you up for other neuroinflammatory diseases, [like Alzheimer's.]"
When a trauma occurs, your immune system jumps into action. Microglia are a type immune cells in the brain. These cells create a barrier around the trauma with inflammation so that it can be contained. Then it cleans out the area by destroying the cause. Unfortunately, if the microglia aren't turned off, the inflammatory process continues. "There is a lot of collateral damage and it can cause neurodegeneration," says Dr. Kaplan. In Alzheimer's patients, this damage becomes irreversible.
"Anything you can do to mitigate that inflammatory process can reduce your risk for Alzheimer's," Dr. Kaplan suggests. Here are his recommendations for dealing with the inflammation and depression that appear to be the root of this debilitating form of dementia:
Long-term stress is what keeps the microglia in your brain in seek-and-destroy mode, causing lots of damage. Dr. Kaplan recommends seeking professional counseling. "Most people don't have the resiliency they need to deal with major stressors," he says. Stressors can range from a high-pressure job to an abusive or dangerous home life. If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline for help.
"Did you know post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also a neuroinflammatory disease?" says Dr. Kaplan, noting its similarities with depression. He points out that the most common cause of PTSD is car accidents. "If you find you're having avoiding getting into a car, avoiding driving, or having nightmares, these can be signs that you need therapy," says Dr. Kaplan. "Too often, we ignore the subtle clues that indicate that we need to reach out for help."
If you're reaching for your second cup of coffee and it's not even lunchtime, you might want to look at your sleeping patterns. "If you have a hard time falling to sleep or not allowing yourself enough sleep, this can cause inflammation," says Dr. Kaplan. But don't turn to sleeping pills—it's important to find the root cause. "If you've ever been told that you're a heavy snorer, you should see a doctor to get tested for sleep apnea."
"Being overweight or having metabolic syndrome are inflammatory and we know are related to higher instances of depression," says Dr. Kaplan.
In fact, a separate study found that simply being sedentary is related to depression. According to research published in Frontiers in Physiology, the one connecting factor is your heart health. "About 15 percent of cardiac output is directed to the brain, which only weighs about 2 percent of the body mass yet," explains the researchers. Faulty blood flow in the brain, caused by issues such as high blood pressure or arterial stiffness, may restrict the energy and nutrient supply in the brain, accelerating Alzheimer's disease.
Food allergies don't just upset your stomach; they can also do a number on your mind. "Headaches, fatigue, finding it hard to concentrate, anxiety disorders, and depression—these are all symptoms of inflammation in the brain caused by food allergies or gluten sensitivity.
Source: JULIA MERZ