Is It Depression or Alzheimer’s? Symptoms Can Mirror Each Other, So Here’s How To Tell the Difference
Understanding the signs can help you stay on top of your cognitive health.
Content warning: This article discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk, call or text the three-digit National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 988.
For many of us, no age-related disease is as scary as Alzheimer’s. There is no cure, and it’s difficult to even think of a future in which you lose your memories and independence. Knowing the symptoms can at least help you stay more in-tune with your body and seek treatment early. However, some Alzheimer’s symptoms overlap with depression symptoms, making it hard to tell the difference between the two.
While getting tested by a doctor is the only sure-fire way to receive a diagnosis, knowing the signs of both conditions will help you identify possible red flags. Understanding why the symptoms overlap and what is causing them to occur may give you a better idea of how to mitigate them.
To be clear: The tips and information provided here are not a replacement for visiting a doctor, but they may help round out a treatment plan.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s vs. Symptoms of Depression
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Alzheimer’s Association list many symptoms for depression and Alzheimer’s, respectfully. Here are several symptoms of both conditions that overlap:
- Feeling sad or anxious, often or constantly
- Lack of enthusiasm in activities you once enjoyed
- Feeling apathetic
- Irritability, frustration, restlessness
- Sleep changes, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, daytime napping, and drowsiness after adequate sleep
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions
- Changes in mood and personality
- Eating more or less than usual, or having no appetite
Another factor that makes it difficult to distinguish between the two conditions in their early stages: Depression is very common in Alzheimer’s patients. It can exacerbate symptoms like memory issues. Conversely, memory issues can contribute to feelings of depression.
Despite this seemingly inverse relationship, Alzheimer’s and depression are two distinct conditions — depression is a mood disorder, and Alzheimer’s is a brain disease. Distinguishing between the two is important for treatment and will help you understand what is happening to the brain.
Below are symptoms of depression that don’t usually overlap with those of Alzheimer’s:
- Experiencing aches, pains, headaches, or stomach problems that don’t improve with treatment
- A history of traumatic or upsetting events
- Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
- Thinking about suicide or hurting yourself
And here are symptoms of Alzheimer’s that are usually exclusive to the disease (and other cognitive conditions, such as dementia):
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships, such as difficulty judging distance or color contrasts, and trouble reading
- New problems with words while speaking or writing — such as difficulty joining or following a conversation or trouble remembering certain words
- Misplacing items, or not being able to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgement
Why Alzheimer’s Might Cause Symptoms That Mimic Depression
Aside from the fact that many Alzheimer’s patients also suffer from depression, there may be another reason for their overlapping symptoms. A study published this year in Molecular Psychiatry found a specific region of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s.
Study authors focused on the nucleus accumbens, a brain region that processes motivation. (Interestingly, this area is not often studied by Alzheimer’s researchers. Rather, it’s studied by scientists who want to understand motivational and emotional processes.)
The authors of the Molecular Psychiatry study noticed that in Alzheimer’s patients, the nucleus accumbens contains receptors that allow calcium to enter neurons. This can cause an overload of calcium, which can break down the structure of neuron connectors. Ultimately, this change in the nucleus accumbens can cause negative changes in motivation and emotion, leading early Alzheimer’s patients to feel apathetic and uninterested in activities that used to excite them.
What This Means for You
Understanding these two conditions can help you identify your symptoms and seek the help that that’s needed. Whether you believe you’re suffering from depression, Alzheimer’s, or both, talk with your doctor.
If you are diagnosed with one or the other, there are at-home therapies you can try (in addition to your doctor’s care plan) to relieve overlapping symptoms, such as isolation, feelings of apathy, and memory difficulties:
- Get social. Dave Farrow, Guinness World Record Holder for greatest memory and memory expert, tells Woman’s World: “Social interaction is the most stimulating and important mental task … [and also] the most difficult cognitive task. That’s why people who are have an active social life are at much lower risk for Alzheimer’s.” So, find ways to make new connections. Make friends with your neighbors, take a trip outside and strike up a conversation with an acquaintance, or explain your problem to your loved ones. They may find more opportunities for you to meet new friends.
- Try Farrow’s tricks for improving your memory, such as creating a “memory palace,” speed reading, and brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
Above all, don’t ignore your symptoms. Treatment may help improve not only your symptoms, but your quality of life.