Recognizing Depression or Normal Memory Loss vs. Dementia and How to Tell the Difference

May 23, 2017

As we age, we sometimes get a little more forgetful.

As we age, we sometimes get a little more forgetful. While most people understand that this is just a normal part of getting older, there are some who fear that forgetfulness is the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. There has been a lot of research focused around aging and memory loss recently, and researchers have learned a lot about what is normal versus a more serious problem.

Aging is not the only factor that contributes to memory loss, however. Many older adults develop memory problems as a result of health issues that may be treatable. These can include: side effects due to medications, vitamin deficiencies, substance abuse or possibly even reduced organ function due to thyroid, kidney or living disorders. These can be serious medical conditions and should be treated as soon as possible.

In addition to the aforementioned medical issues which can precipitate memory loss or impairment, there is what seems to be the most common reason: depression. Depression in older adults has been as steadily growing problem, and emotional problems such as stress, anxiety or depression can – and quite often do – lead to forgetfulness, confusion and other symptoms that are similar to those of dementia.

The major issue facing many senior living service providers and caregivers is how to tell the difference between normal age-related memory loss or memory challenges brought on by treatable conditions – whether they be physiological or mental – and memory loss due to Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

What is Dementia?

“Dementia” is a catch-all term often used to describe a number of symptoms including memory impairment, as well as reduced reasoning, language and other thinking skills. In most cases, dementia progresses slowly until the point where it significantly impairs that person’s ability to work, maintain relationships and manage his or her own life.

Memory loss is usually the most noticeable sign of dementia, but other early signs include things such as:
· Repeatedly asking the same questions
· Forgetting or mixing up common words when speaking
· Misplacing items in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer
· Getting lost in a normally familiar environment
· Sudden changes in mood or behavior, with no apparent cause
· Inability to follow directions

Diseases that cause progressive damage to the brain and consequently result in dementia include:
· Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia
· Vascular dementia (multi-infarct dementia)
· Frontotemporal dementia
· Lewy body dementia

Each of these diseases is unique, and so is the pathology, meaning that memory impairment isn’t always the first sign of the disease, and that the kinds of memory difficulties associated with each may vary.

How to Tell the Difference

Here are a few of the categories used to gauge a person’s mental acuity, as well as some helpful tips that can help amateur and professional caregivers differentiate between the kinds of issues you see in people who may be depressed versus those who may be suffering from some form of dementia:

Memory: Those who are depressed may have trouble concentrating, and they may have occasional lapses in memory, which can make their mood worse. However, people with Alzheimer’s disease have consistent problems storing new information, such as a recent visit with a close relative or what the person ate for dinner.

With depression, forgetfulness and confusion usually come on very suddenly, whereas with most forms of dementia the decline in mental acuity is usually quite slow. Additionally, a person who is depressed is more likely to recognize the prevalence of memory issues, as opposed to those with dementia, who don’t necessarily notice the decline in faculties as much.

Orientation: Generally, most people who are depressed know with whom they’re speaking, what time and date it is, and where they are. People with dementia tend to have trouble remembering some or all of these things, and can become lost even in familiar locations.

Language use: Depressed people use language properly, although they may speak slowly at times. Those with Alzheimer’s disease often have many problems with language. A very good indication of dementia is if a person has difficulty remembering the names of common objects such as “pen” or “lamp.”

Use of familiar objects: Again, not a problem for people with depression. Someone with dementia may have trouble remembering how to perform previously learned and routine motor activities, such as how to get a pullover sweater on, for example.

It’s important to understand that both depression and dementia are unique to each individual. The gauges and guidance outlined above may not apply to every individual, but careful vigilance and general knowledge regarding the differences between depression and dementia symptoms could make all the difference.

Whether memory loss or cognitive/motor decline is caused by dementia or depression, it’s important to see a doctor right away. If it is dementia, then treatment will improve the person’s quality of life – and with certain types of dementia, symptoms can be slowed with medication.

If it is depression, then memory, concentration and energy can be restored with the proper treatment, which may include medication prescribed by a doctor, as well as lifestyle changes. Appropriate lifestyle changes include staying engaged and active socially, maintaining a healthy diet, finding ways to properly manage stress, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep. If lifestyle changes don’t work, the best thing to do is call a doctor and seek professional help for depression.

Additional Resources:
Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
1-800-438-4380 (toll-free)
adear@nia.nih.gov (email)
The National Institute on Aging’s ADEAR Center offers information and publications in English and Spanish for families, caregivers, and professionals on diagnosis, treatment, patient care, caregiver needs, long-term care, education and training, and research related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s Association
1-800-272-3900 (toll-free)
1-866-403-3073 (TTY/toll-free)
info@alz.org (email)

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
1-866-232-8484 (toll-free)
info@alzfdn.org (email)

Depression Isn’t Dementia. (2008, June 5). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.health.com/health/condition-article/0,,20188947,00.html
Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help. (2016, February). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/forgetfulness
Memory loss: When to seek help. (2014, June 5). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/in-depth/memory-loss/art-20046326
Depression in Older Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/depression-in-older-adults-and-the-elderly.htm
Age-Related Memory Loss. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/memory/age-related-memory-loss.htm


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