Depression, Alzheimer’s and the Myths

Depression and Alzheimer’s in Adults

What is depression

When doctors talk about depression, they mean the medical illness called major depression. Someone who has major depression has symptoms like those listed in the box below nearly every day, all day, for 2 weeks or longer. There is also a minor form of depression that causes less severe symptoms. Both have the same causes and treatment.

If you’re depressed, you may also have headaches, other aches and pains, digestive problems and problems with sex. An older person who has depression may feel confused or have trouble understanding simple request.

Symptoms of depression

  • No interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy, including sex
  • Feeling sad or numb
  • Crying easily or for no reason
  • Feeling slowed down or feeling restless and irritable
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Unintended weight loss or gain
  • Trouble recalling things, concentrating or making decisions
  • Headaches, backaches or digestive problems
  • Sleeping too much, or having problems sleeping
  • Feeling tired all of the time
  • Thoughts about death or suicide

What is Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Dementia is a brain disorder caused by damage of the brain cells that makes it hard for people to remember, learn and communicate. These changes eventually make it hard for people to care for themselves. Alzheimer’s disease may also cause changes in mood and personality.

Do people who have Alzheimer’s disease become depressed

Yes. Depression is very common among people who have Alzheimer’s disease. In many cases, they become depressed when they realize that their memory and ability to function are getting worse.

Unfortunately, depression may make it even harder for a person who has Alzheimer’s disease to function, to remember things and to enjoy life.

How can I tell if my family member who has Alzheimer’s disease is depressed

It may be difficult for you to know if your family member is depressed. You can look for some of the typical signs of depression, which include the following:

  • Not wanting to move or do things (called apathy)
  • Expressing feelings of worthlessness and sadness
  • Unintended weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping too much or having problems sleeping

Other signs of depression include crying and being unusually emotional, being angry or agitated, and being confused. Your family member who has Alzheimer’s disease may refuse to help with his or her own personal care (for example, getting dressed or taking medicines). He or she may wander away from home more often.

Alzheimer’s disease and depression have many symptoms that are alike. It can be hard to tell the difference between them. If you think that depression is a problem for your relative who has Alzheimer’s disease, talk to his or her family doctor.

How can the doctor help

The doctor will talk with your relative. The doctor will also ask you and other family members and caregivers whether the person has any new or changed behaviors. The doctor will check your relative and may wish to do some tests to rule out other medical problems. He or she may suggest medicines to help your family member feel better. The doctor may also have some advice for you and other family members and caregivers on how to cope. He or she may recommend support groups that can help you.

What medicines can help reduce depression

Antidepressant medicines can be very helpful for people who have Alzheimer’s disease and depression. These medicines can improve the symptoms of sadness and apathy, and they may also improve appetite and sleep problems. Don’t worry — these medicines are not habit-forming. The doctor may also suggest other medicines that can help reduce upsetting problems, such as hallucinations or anxiety.

What can I do to help my family member

Try to keep a daily routine for your family member who has Alzheimer’s disease. Avoid loud noises and overstimulation. A pleasant environment with familiar faces and things helps soothe fear and anxiety. Have a realistic expectation of what your family member can do. Expecting too much can make you both feel frustrated and upset. Let your family member help with simple, enjoyable tasks, such as preparing meals, gardening, doing crafts and sorting photos. Most of all, be positive. Frequent praise for your family member will help him or her feel better — and it will help you as well.

As the caregiver of a person who has Alzheimer’s disease, you must also take care of yourself. If you become too tired and frustrated, you will be less able to help your family member. Ask for help from relatives, friends and local community organizations. Respite care (short-term care that is given to the patient who has Alzheimer’s disease in order to provide relief for the caregiver) may be available from your local senior citizens’ group or a social services agency. Look for caregiver support groups. Other people who are dealing with the same problems may have some good ideas on how you can cope better and on how to make caregiving easier. Adult day care centers may be helpful. They can give your family member a consistent environment and a chance to socialize.

Alzheimer’s Myths

Myth 1: Memory loss is a natural part of aging

Reality: In the past people believed memory loss was a normal part of aging, often regarding even Alzheimer’s as natural age-related decline. Experts now recognize severe memory loss as a symptom of serious illness.

Whether memory naturally declines to some extent remains an open question. Many people feel that their memory becomes less sharp as they grow older, but determining whether there is any scientific basis for this belief is a research challenge still being addressed.

Myth 2: Alzheimer’s disease is not fatal.

Reality: Alzheimer’s disease has no survivors. It destroys brain cells and causes memory changes, erratic behaviors and loss of body functions. It slowly and painfully takes away a person’s identity, ability to connect with others, think, eat, talk, walk and find his or her way home.

Myth 3: Only older people can get Alzheimer’s 

Reality: Alzheimer’s can strike people in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. This is called younger-onset Alzheimer’s. It is estimated that there are as many as 5.4 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. This includes 5.2 million people age 65 and over and 200,000 people under age 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Myth 4: Drinking out of aluminum cans or cooking in aluminum pots and pans can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Reality: During the 1960s and 1970s, aluminum emerged as a possible suspect in Alzheimer’s. This suspicion led to concern about exposure to aluminum through everyday sources such as pots and pans, beverage cans, antacids and antiperspirants. Since then, studies have failed to confirm any role for aluminum in causing Alzheimer’s. Experts today focus on other areas of research, and few believe that everyday sources of aluminum pose any threat.

Myth 5: Aspartame causes memory loss.

Reality: This artificial sweetener, marketed under such brand names as Nutrasweet and Equal, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in all foods and beverages in 1996. Since approval, concerns about aspartame’s health effects have been raised.

According to the FDA, as of May 2006, the agency had not been presented with any scientific evidence that would lead to change its conclusions on the safety of aspartame for most people. The agency says its conclusions are based on more than 100 laboratory and clinical studies.

Myth 6: Flu shots increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Reality: A theory linking flu shots to a greatly increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease has been proposed by a U.S. doctor whose license was suspended by the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners. Several mainstream studies link flu shots and other vaccinations to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and overall better health.

  • A Nov. 27, 2001, Canadian Medical Journal report suggests older adults who were vaccinated against diphtheria or tetanus, polio, and influenza seemed to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those not receiving these vaccinations.
  • A report in the Nov. 3, 2004, JAMA found that annual flu shots for older adults were associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes.

Myth 7: Silver dental fillings increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Reality: According to the best available scientific evidence, there is no relationship between silver dental fillings and Alzheimer’s. The concern that there could be a link arose because “silver” fillings are made of an amalgam (mixture) that typically contains about 50 percent mercury, 35 percent silver and 15 percent tin. Mercury is a heavy metal that, in certain forms, is know to be toxic to the brain and other organs.

Many scientists consider the studies below compelling evidence that dental amalgam is not a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Public health agencies, including the FDA, the U.S. Public Health Service and the World Health Organization, endorse the continued use of amalgam as safe, strong, inexpensive material for dental restorations.

  • March 1991, the Dental Devices Panel of the FDA concluded there was no current evidence that amalgam poses any danger.
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1991 funded a study at the University of Kentucky to investigate the relationship between amalgam fillings and Alzheimer’s. Analysis by University statisticians revealed no significant association between silver fillings and Alzheimer’s.
  • October 30, 2003, a New England Journal of Medicine article concluded that current evidence shows no connection between mercury-containing dental fillings and Alzheimer’s or other neurological diseases.

 Myth 8: There are treatments available to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease
Reality: At this time, there is no treatment to cure, delay or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. FDA-approved drugs temporarily slow worsening of symptoms for about 6 to 12 months, on average, for about half of the individuals who take them.


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