According to Mental Health America, at least two million people over the age of 65 suffer from various kinds of depression, and studies show they may also be at risk for accelerated brain aging.
2018 Study Links Depression and Brain Aging
On May 9, 2018, the American Academy of Neurology published a study showing that older people who have significant symptoms of mood disorder may also have structural changes in their brains that differentiate them from senior citizens who do not have symptoms of the illness. The study included 1,111 stroke-free participants with an average age of 71.
At the beginning of the study, participants were given a psychological assessment, brain scan and evaluation of cognitive memory skills. Approximately five years later, researchers assessed the thinking and memory skills of the participants and determined their results. To be a part of the study, individuals had to be healthy enough to have an MRI, a factor that may have affected the results. Also, the five-year span between the initial assessment and the final evaluation may not have been long enough to fully test gradual changes in thinking and memory.
2014 Study Associates Mood Disorder and MCI
In a related study done at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and published in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers discovered that people who develop symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, and mood changes after the age of 65 are more likely to also show signs of biological changes in images of the brain.
According to Meryl A. Butters, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the university, older adults who experience an episode of major depression are twice as likely to also develop dementia further down the road when compared to their peers who have never had a mood disorder. Researchers, however, still do not understand the connection between the depression and MCI.
Researchers began the study by collecting blood samples from 80 older individuals who had been treated for a major episode of depression and entered remission. Of these, 44 had normal cognitive abilities while 36 had minor cognitive impairment. The blood samples were tested for 242 proteins associated with cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, cancer, psychiatric illnesses and neurodegenerative disorders. Professionals performed MRI and PET brain scans to detect signs of brain shrinkage or atrophy, cerebrovascular disease, and beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s.
Results showed that the people with mild cognitive impairment were more likely to display biologic activity in 24 proteins associated with immunity and inflammation, protein and lipid balance, and the signaling and survival of cells. Brain scans also showed that people with MCI were also more like to have a small stroke or another cerebrovascular disease, but no difference between the two groups was found in beta-amyloid deposits.
According to Dr. Butters, these results suggest that people with cognitive impairment and mood disorders may be at increased risk for brain aging. She says that understanding the relationship between MCI and mental illness may help researchers to slow down the cognitive impairment or prevent its progression.
Mood Disorders and Aging
People who suffer from conditions like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, Parkinson’s or arthritis often get depressed, and medicines for other ailments often also affect mood. The good news is that 80 or 90 percent of depressed people are eventually successfully treated. Getting help, however, may be a problem for the elderly. A survey by Mental Health America shows that over half of older people know little about the disorder. Only 38 percent think that being depressed is a health problem, and another 43 percent reported they would not ask for help.
While more research into the link between MCI and mood is needed, educating older Americans about the disorder and how it can be treated is also important.