December 20, 2014
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Mental Health

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Study: Depression raises risk of Alzheimer's and dementia

Men with a history of experiencing symptoms of depression may be twice as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease as men who don't display these symptoms, according to a study published in the journal Annals of Neurology.

Researchers in Rome analyzed data from 1,357 men and women involved in a 40-year study on aging, during which participants were screened for depression symptoms and given comprehensive medical and neuropsychological exams every two years.

Of the women involved in the study, 49 developed dementia, 40 as a result of Alzheimer's disease. Seventy-six of the men developed dementia during the course of the study, 67 as a result of Alzheimer's.

Dementia is a form of mental impairment that takes hold gradually. It can impair memory and judgment and may affect a person's personality and their ability to function. While the exact cause of Alzheimer's is unknown, it is the most common form of dementia, affecting some 280,000 Canadians over the age of 65.

Though more Canadian women than men have Alzheimer's and other dementias, statistical analysis determined that the risk of developing these conditions is associated with symptoms of depression only in the men.

In an interview, the study's lead author, Dr. Gloria Dal Forno, speculated the difference between women and men could be due to male and female sex hormones and their differing effects on the brain.

"We know that male and female brains have anatomical and functional differences and are exposed differently to sex hormones throughout life, hormones known to have effects on both depression and Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Dal Forno told Reuters. "As a consequence, male and female brains might react to conditions causing or enhancing a disease quite differently, which seems to be precisely what we found in this investigation."

Though the study found an association in men between depression symptoms and dementia risk, the nature of the relationship is unclear. As a result, further studies are necessary to determine, for example, whether treating the symptoms - through medication, psychotherapy or both - could lead to a subsequent reduction in risk of developing dementia. The study also does not examine how differences in the severity of depression affect the risk level.

At any given time, an estimated 1.5 million Canadians are believed to be experiencing a serious depression, characterized by prolonged feelings of sadness and hopelessness, often combined with physical symptoms such as changes to appetite and sleep patterns.


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