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In 2020, there were an estimated 55 million people living with dementia. 10 million new cases add to the number yearly, and experts believe that someone develops the condition every three seconds.
Notably, researchers have always believed that there is a relationship between mental disorders and dementia. Although many studies have been done in the past, results weren't always consistent.
Fortunately, more light has been shared on the topic.
A recent study has found that mental health conditions like major depression, bipolar disorder, and psychosis increase the risks of dementia later in life.
Of the 1.7 million people (21-60 years) studied, 3.8% had a mental health condition, while 2% had a dementia diagnosis. Over 6% of the people with mental health problems developed dementia during the study. Among those without a mental health problem, only 1.8 developed dementia.
The research was published in Jama Psychiatry.
Although there is a strong link between dementia and mood disorders, the researchers cannot yet find evidence that these disorders cause dementia.
According to the study's lead author Dr. Leah Richmond-Rakerd, the relationship could be because these mental health conditions share the same risk factors. So, when one condition is present, the other is also likely to occur.
It could also be a brain vulnerability that manifests as mental health problems in early adulthood and later shows up as dementia.
Another possible explanation could be that mental health problems set one on a path to future health challenges. For example, an individual living with depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder may not practice self-care while experiencing side effects from life-long medication. These things can compound over time and later manifest as cognitive impairment.
Even though mental health problems are not a direct cause of dementia, they are an early indicator and precursor of the condition.
Depression is generally a risk factor for dementia. Researchers report that people with symptoms of depression naturally experience a rapid decline in memory and thinking ability. But that's not all.
Several studies have shown that people with bipolar disorder tend to have cognitive impairment. Cognitive impairment may be a marker of neuroprogression, that is, a brain decline leading to dementia later in life. In one Pubmed study, the risk of dementia was found to be higher in people with bipolar disorder than those without.
Another Pubmed study shows that older men with psychosis have almost three times greater risk of developing dementia than those without the disorder.
Furthermore, some researchers have linked schizophrenia with an increased risk of dementia. One 2018 study found an association between late-onset schizophrenia and dementia. People who develop schizophrenia late in life are three times more likely to develop dementia as well.
In general, mood disorders, and not only depressive disorders, are associated with a higher risk of dementia. In fact, depression is often a symptom of the early phase of dementia. It is like a "reverse causation," with dementia getting the individual depressed and vice versa. However, this only applies when depression occurs late in the individual’s life.
Indeed, there's no evidence to say mental health problems cause dementia. But one thing's for sure: the presence of mental health problems in young adulthood indicates that dementia might occur later. Perhaps, supporting young people's mental health may help reduce the number of older adults that develop dementia later.