Alzheimer's or depression: Could it be both?

Alzheimer's and depression have some similar symptoms. Proper treatment improves quality of life. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Early Alzheimer's disease and depression share many symptoms, so it can be difficult even for doctors to distinguish between the two disorders. And many people with Alzheimer's also are depressed.

One important difference between Alzheimer's and depression is in the effectiveness of treatment. While Alzheimer's drugs can only slow the progression of cognitive decline, medications to treat depression can improve a person's quality of life dramatically.

People who have both Alzheimer's and depression may find it easier to cope with the changes caused by Alzheimer's when they feel less depressed.

Similar symptoms

Some of the symptoms common to both Alzheimer's and depression include:

  • Loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities and hobbies
  • Social withdrawal
  • Memory problems
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Impaired concentration

With so much overlap in symptoms, it can be hard to distinguish between the two disorders, especially since they so often occur together. A thorough physical exam and psychological evaluation can be helpful in determining a diagnosis. However, many people with moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease lack both the insight and the vocabulary to express how they feel.

Signposts for depression

To detect depression in people who have Alzheimer's disease, doctors must rely more heavily on nonverbal cues and caregiver reports than on self-reported symptoms. If a person with Alzheimer's displays one of the first two symptoms in this list, along with at least two of the others within a two-week period, he or she may be depressed.

  • Significantly depressed mood — sad, hopeless, discouraged, tearful
  • Reduced pleasure in or response to social contacts and usual activities
  • Social isolation or withdrawal
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Agitation or lethargy
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or inappropriate guilt
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Jun. 26, 2012 See more In-depth