Feeling Blue?

A new reason to act

Feeling blue? A new reason to act

Why managing depression can help you beat dementia

By Nicola Gates, Neuropsychologist, Brain and Mind Psychology



About one in four Australians will experience a mental illness and most will experience a mental health problem at some time in their life. Major depression is the predominant mental illness and is the fourth cause of disability worldwide - costing individuals and society a fortune.

Depression is recognised as a risk factor for dementia. Research combining international data has found that depression alone contributes up to 8 percent of the risk for dementia. Dementia, like depression, has a number of risk factors including lifestyle, medical and mental health risks, along with genetics.

Increasing age is the most significant risk factor for dementia with almost one in two adults over 85 likely to have the disease. However, contrary to popular belief, older adults who report feeling more positive and have higher ratings of life satisfaction after age 50, and rates of depression tend to decline.

The link between depression and dementia

Depression and dementia are both associated with changes in cognitive function, particularly speed of information processing, memory and problem solving. Neuroscience research suggests that both depression and dementia are associated with the same pattern of brain changes, particularly white matter changes and neuronal damage. Depression and dementia (neurocognitive disorder) can also co-occur, meaning that people can present with symptoms of both conditions. However the timing of onset appears to be crucial in understanding the link between them.

Recent research suggests that late life depression may be an early sign of dementia, a symptom during the prodromal period of the disease before clinical symptoms of cognitive deterioration are evident. This is distinct from people becoming depressed in response to diagnosis of dementia, an emotional response not a cause. However, new evidence suggests that poorly managed depression in early-mid life may cause dementia in late life. Therefore if you are susceptible to low mood and depression, invest in your mental health today for the future health of your brain.

Build your best foundation for health and wellbeing and reduce your risks for depression and dementia at the same time. Start by managing any health conditions and restoring yourself with between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. 

Here are our five tips to keep preliminary signs and symptoms of depression at bay and ultimately reduce your risk of dementia:

1. Eat good-mood food

Consume a healthy and varied diet to boost your mental health including essential fatty acids and omega 3s, lean proteins, essential micronutrients from vegetables and fruit. To make the neurotransmitter serotonin, essential for normal mood, increase tryptophan (eat turkey and chicken for the highest sources). Eat the best energising fuel – slow-release carbohydrates, not sugars or salt and fats. Your diet in midlife affects cognitive function in later life.

2. Start moving

Exercise more than three hours a week. When a person becomes depressed, they may find it easier not to exercise but it is important to get up and get moving. Go for a walk – even if it initially means a few laps around your garden or building, gradually it may become a block, or 10. Exercise is linked to positive mental health as it increases the neurotransmitters linked to normal healthy mood. Exercise also reduces dementia risk and stimulates brain growth.

3. Keep it positive

Develop an optimistic state of mind and build up positive emotional experiences by paying attention to the present and focusing on the good. There are plenty of self-help books, downloads, apps to help. A positive mind set increases longevity and reduces morbidity.

4. Put away the booze

Remove or reduce alcohol, a depressant that suppresses the central nervous system and contributes to depressive thinking, exacerbating mental health issues. Switch from caffeine to herbal tea although coffee may give you a “boost” it can increase the stress response and heighten the sense of anxiety and foreboding.

5. Ask for help

Depression is an illness, so like any other medical problem seek appropriate medical assistance from your medical practitioner, psychologist, or other registered mental health professional to get appropriate care. Always proactively manage your psychological wellbeing for the health of your brain.