(WellnessPursuits) – Can your mood determine how well your brain will age? It’s a scary prospect, but the effect of your mood may stretch even further than the emotional pain, physical discomfort and fatigue you most often associate with depression. Along with all that suffering, the brain may also be degrading, which could make someone who is depressed more likely to develop dementia later in life.
Understanding the Link
Researchers at Cambridge University recently published a meta-analysis comparing studies and articles on PubMed, ScienceDirect and similar search engines. They compiled 32 articles linking depression and cognitive decline, and they found depressed people are far more likely to suffer from dementia in their senior years. But determining cause and effect isn’t so simple.
In their discussion, the researchers list three possible explanations for the link:
- Depression may reduce a person’s threshold for mental decline, with dementia being a possible long-term side effect.
- Depression may be an early symptom of cognitive decline, and it merely appears to be a cause.
- Depression and cognitive decline may develop independently, possibly arising from the same root cause.
Regardless of their relationship, the two appear to go hand-in-hand. More research is needed to rule out all other potential causes, but if we can figure out the base of the issue — whether it’s depression, disease or something else completely unrelated — we might find more effective treatments for both of these conditions.
Depression on the Brain
Depression appears to cause visible brain changes in MRI scans. For example, women suffering from depression tend to have hippocampuses that are 9% to 13% smaller than women without depression. This may be the result of long-term damage caused by stress hormones continuously flooding the brain. The hippocampus is vital to memory storage, as well as our emotional responses upon recall, so this finding alone could explain the depression-dementia connection.
Depression also causes changes in other areas of our brains, too. The amygdala, which lights up during times that are emotionally charged, tends to become over-activated in people with depression, and this over-activation tends to persist even after depression has been treated. Problems with the thalamus, which regulates our ability to learn, reason, and speak, may also be associated with mood issues and bipolar disorder.
Reversing the Damage
We may not fully understand the relationship yet, but we can be proactive about what we do know: Depression is treatable. For an immediate boost, antidepressants may be able to help balance out neurotransmitters and start the road to recovery, but the long-term effects of their use is still poorly understood.
It’s important to note that some antidepressants, especially SSRIs, have been tied to a risk of suicide or suicidal ideations, especially in vulnerable groups of people. Anyone considering this type of treatment needs to discuss their family history as well as the risks and benefits of each medication before making a treatment plan.
A more viable solution may lie in therapy. Studies have shown cognitive behavioral therapy and behavioral activation therapy, both of which place a focus on restructuring a patient’s behaviors and responses, can lead to structural changes of their own. Both have been shown to create long-lasting changes in mood and behavior, and both appear to coincide with visible changes on brain MRI scans.
Depression can have some profound effects on the body, but what it could do to the brain itself might be the most dangerous of all. Be proactive about your mental health. Seek help from your physician or a mental health professional. You could be preserving more than your wellbeing. You might be saving your future self: your memories, your ability to learn, remember and react — and maybe even the very essence of who you are.
~ Here’s to Your Healthy Pursuits!
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