Depression in early adulthood may increase risk of dementia

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Study findings point to a link between mental health struggles and cognitive decline

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California San Francisco explored how consumers’ mental health can impact their long-term cognitive function

Their findings showed that depression-related symptoms in early adulthood can increase the risk of dementia. The opposite also appeared to be true -- experiencing fewer depression-related symptoms was associated with better cognitive function in older age. 

“Generally, we found that the greater depressive symptoms, the lower the cognition and the faster rates of decline,” said researcher Willa Brenowitz, Ph.D. “Older adults estimated to have moderate or high depressive symptoms in early adulthood were found to experience a drop in cognition over 10 years.” 

The link between mental health and cognitive function

To better understand how mental health and mood can impact long-term cognitive function, the researchers had nearly 15,000 people between the ages of 20 and 89 answer questionnaires about their depression symptoms. The team then tracked these individuals over time to determine how their cognitive function was impacted. 

The researchers learned that the participants’ experiences in young adulthood significantly impacted their cognitive function down the road. 

Overall, 13% of the young adults involved in the study had moderate or high depressive symptoms, compared with 34% of older participants. However, for those who experienced depression in their younger years, there was a 73% higher risk of developing dementia; comparatively, depression in later life was linked with a 43% higher risk of dementia. 

“Several mechanisms explain how depression might increase dementia risk,” said Dr. Brenowitz. “Among them is that hyperactivity of the central stress response system increases production of the stress hormones glucocorticoids, leading to damage of the hippocampus, the part of the brain essential for forming, organizing, and storing new memories.” 

The researchers hope these findings highlight how important it is for consumers to have access to mental health treatments and resources. 

“Future work will be needed to confirm these findings, but in the meantime, we should screen and treat depression for many reasons,” said researcher Dr. Kristine Yaffe. 

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