April 8th, 2008
10:31 AM ET

Alzheimer's: another clue

Wouldn’t it be great to know if you were likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease? I think about it all the time, especially when I forget something, lose my keys or lose my train of thought, which really seems to happen more and more lately. Truth is, everyone does that from time to time, and it often has no relationship to developing dementia. But researchers think they have found something that may serve as a warning sign. Depression.

While it has long been believed that people with Alzheimer’s become depressed because of the mind-robbing effects of the disease, there is now some evidence to suggest that it is, in fact, the other way around. Depression may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

After tracking 917 retired Catholic priests and nuns, researchers found those with symptoms of depression at the beginning of the study were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. (read study)   A different study found that those with depression were 2.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and if you developed depression before the age of 60, you were actually 4 times more likely to develop it.

The big question, of course, is why.  Well, after doing some digging, there is no easy answer.  However, consider this: People with depression often release lots of cortisol because of the stress of their depression, and it is believed that cortisol by itself could cause damage to the vital connections in the brain that are responsible for memory.

There is no question that as our population ages, more people than ever will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Besides better treatments, one of the biggest goals for researchers is earlier detection. 

As a neurosurgeon, I am fascinated by this and I am curious:  If you know, or have known anyone with Alzheimer’s disease, did you see any early clues that signaled future Alzheimer’s disease?

– Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent  Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.Comments to the 360° blog are moderated. What does that mean?

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Filed under: Dr. Sanjay Gupta • Medical News
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Ramone Diaz, Venezuela

    Dr Gupta sometimes I am so afraid to have Alzheimer because I keep forgeting my keys and names. And my Aunt Ophelia suffers it now, The depression link impressed me a lot. Wow! I'm gonna be more optimistic from now on.

    April 8, 2008 at 11:05 pm |
  2. Angela, Virginia

    I have a comment and a question.

    First, my mom has always seemed depressed. My father has had some bad moments (suicidal). BOTH of my grandmothers have severe dementia and one has Alzheimer's as well. I worry about my parents and myself for the future.

    So, my question is do you think that treating depression now, with Wellbutrin (sp) or a similar drug may prevent dementia from happening down the road? Does the current realm of drugs prevent the Cortisol release or mask it?

    Thanks in advance-Angela

    April 8, 2008 at 4:36 pm |
  3. kathi henderson

    The connection between Alzheimer’s and depression is particularly relevant to someone in my family. My Aunt lost her husband in mid life which clearly impacted her emotional well -being bringing about depression after he passed away, sadly and unfortunately she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
    While my example may support the study, in this blog it will be interesting to learn more about this apparent correlation between Alzheimer’s and depression in future studies.

    April 8, 2008 at 1:20 pm |
  4. Renee

    Dr. Gupta:

    Next time you are in Florida you may want to consider a visit to the Roskamp Institute located in Sarasota and Tampa, FL.

    The foundation was started by a very wealthy man whose family members have suffered from this disease. His plans are to help with the suffering of a horrible disease.

    My friends mother had the disease and she spent the last 10 years of her life curled up in a ball in the fetal position in a nursing home. It was sad and devastating to her to visit her mother. I went a few times and could hardly handle it myself.

    Your fascination and curiousity may be increased by your learnings with these scientists and clinical trials. It may be worth a visit.

    April 8, 2008 at 1:05 pm |
  5. Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA

    While depression and stress may play a major factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease, it wasn't a factor for my brother-in-law's aunt. She was a strong, vital woman, well adjusted in life and never showed any signs of depression. Her Alzheimer's Disease seemed to ambush her from out of nowhere, and in a relatively short time, it has made her a shadow of her former self.

    Whatever the cause, I hope there is some success in finding a cure soon. Perhaps, the worst thing that can happen to a person is to lose their memories.

    April 8, 2008 at 12:52 pm |
  6. Annie

    Dear Dr. Gupta,
    I loved your note on Alzheimer. My uncle from father's side has Alzheimer and yes he had depression.

    My grandmother from mom's side had the same problem, but I don't remember she ever had depression. So what is it for me? Am I going to get Alzheimer? I had depression too. How can I prevent it?
    And isn't it that depression is heredity?
    It's so scary for me. what should I do?

    April 8, 2008 at 12:14 pm |
  7. Kent, Illinois

    Alzheimers disease runs in my family. Grandpa, grandma, dad etc. If I could do anything to offset this possible inevitability I would be willing to try ANYTHING. I am a 43 yr old white male. What recent breakthroughs or possible remedies should I be excited about?

    April 8, 2008 at 12:13 pm |

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