Depression and Alzheimer’s: How Can They Be Differentiated in Older Adults?

Depression in older adults is most common in those who have suffered loss, trauma, or the death of a loved one. Usually, it is more than just feeling sad or blue. It can also cause physical changes in your body and brain, leading to serious health issues.

Depression and similar mood disorders are increasingly common in older adults, and their symptoms may imitate Alzheimer’s. But how can we know the route of our symptoms if these two diseases show similar signs?

That’s why we have wrote this article. Here, we help you distinguish between these two medical conditions.

Upset lonely senior lady looking out of window with despair, frustration, going through depression, apathy, mental disorder, thinking over health problems, worried about memory loss, dementia

What Is Depression?

Depression is a mental illness that changes how a person thinks, feels, and acts in the world. 

Everyone is vulnerable to depression. Anyone can experience it, and there are occasionally subtle symptoms as well. Physical and mental illnesses, loneliness, financial difficulties, and a lack of social support are the most common causes of depression in older adults.

Depression can be difficult to manage, especially for older adults who cannot seek help from family or friends. It’s due to the reason that untreated depression often worsens.

Over the last few decades, the prevalence of depression in older adults has increased, with more than 10% of Americans over 65 experiencing depression at some point in their lives.

Depression Symptoms

  • Appetite changes
  • Sleep pattern changes
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of motivation or low self-esteem
  • Difficulties with concentrating, recalling information, or making decisions

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that negatively affects cognitive function and memory. According to research, more than 5 million Americans live with this disease, the country’s sixth most common cause of death.

What Causes Alzheimer’s?

The causes of Alzheimer’s are still unknown, but some risk factors may increase your chances of developing the disease. These include: 

  • Being over 65 
  • Family history of Alzheimer’s 
  • High blood pressure
  • Recent heart attack or stroke 
  • Having diabetes mellitus 
  • Depression or anxiety disorders 
  • Working in a job that requires long periods of memory work

Portrait of Elderly man lost in thought

How Are Depression and Alzheimer’s different?

Constant sadness and a sense of loss are hallmarks of the mental disorder known as depression. Which, according to the World Health Organization, is also the most common mental illness.

Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is a type of dementia that gradually destroys brain cells, resulting in memory loss, confusion, and impaired judgment.

Although depression and Alzheimer’s disease are very different, they have similarities. They both cause severe emotional distress and have the potential to lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.

How Does Alzheimer’s Disease Change the Structure of the Brain Over Time?

It is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain’s structure over time. It shrinks and destroys neurons in the brain, causing memory loss, confusion, and death. Alzheimer’s has become more common as people live longer.

To prevent or delay the progression of this disease, patients must be aware of their risk factors and symptoms and seek treatment as soon as possible.

How Many Types of Alzheimer’s Disease Are There?

There are two types of Alzheimer’s disease: type 1 and 2.

In Alzheimer’s type 1, plaque buildup or cellular tangles in the brain cause damage to the neurons. In Alzheimer’s type 2, there is damage to the neurons, but not because of plaque deposits or tangles.

Depression in Older Adults VS. Alzheimer’s: What Are the Differences

Here are the main distinctions between Alzheimer’s disease and depression in older adults:


Depression often begins with a particular event, such as the death of a family member, separation, divorce, abandonment, illness of a family member or oneself, an accident, or a life crisis. 

The onset of Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, can be gradual and manifest first as forgetfulness and irritability.


Depression symptoms can appear quickly and clearly, whereas Alzheimer’s symptoms can take years.

Clinical History

If a person has a history of depressive symptoms throughout their life, depressive episodes are more likely to occur. A person with Alzheimer’s may have a pretty clear record of psychiatric conditions.

Neurological Damage

Alzheimer’s patients typically experience difficulties with four critical areas of functioning: 

  • Language, 
  • General knowledge
  • Repetitive tasks like tying shoes 
  • Planning and following multi-step instructions. 

People who are depressed may struggle with the same everyday tasks, interpersonal interactions, and memory issues.

Different Thinking

Making up histories to explain past events that one can no longer remember is one intriguing aspect of Alzheimer’s disease.


When someone has depression, complaints are frequent, and failure is commonly overrated. On the other hand, a person who has Alzheimer’s disease will typically make mistakes without being too critical of themselves.


A person with Alzheimer’s disease may never recover lost abilities or skills, whereas a depressed person might sometimes make good use of those skills again.

Positive Reactions 

It can be challenging for depressed people to respond positively. On the other hand, a person with Alzheimer’s can still enjoy life and be unexpectedly happy.

Social Skills

When depression first sets in, there is a significant loss of social activity in the depressed person; they don’t want to go out, don’t want to call their friends, and don’t want anyone to visit. People with Alzheimer’s typically do not lose pleasure from communicating with others.

Neurological Tests

Diagnostic tests such as CT scans and EEGs reveal specific brain abnormalities in Alzheimer’s disease (Computerized Axial Tomography or Electroencephalography).

Sad tired ill sick lonely disappointed caucasian old elderly senior woman grandmother sitting on the sofa couch, feeling nostalgy, pain, missing grandchildren, bankruptcy, fraud at home

What Are The Best Methods to Treat Depression In Older Adults

Depression treatment options include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination. 

Medication is the most commonly used treatment for depression, and it includes:

  • Atypical antipsychotics, 
  • Tricyclic antidepressants, 
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, 
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), 
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

Final Words

Compared to younger people, older adults are more likely to develop depression. It’s due to the changing life circumstances that come with ageing.

The main reason is that as they get older, they have more responsibilities and may get exposed to more life stressors. 

There’s no cure for AD, but diagnosing and differentiating them from depression is the first treatment step.

Are you or your loved one going through depression or Alzheimer’s? You can share your story with us in the comments.

Source ChoosingTherapy
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1 year ago

I’m taking care of my mother, who is diagnosed with severe depression after the loss of my father. I just wanted to tell you something. Depression can be challenging to manage, and it may take time for the senior to start feeling better. Be patient, understanding, and supportive throughout the process. 🙂

1 year ago

All diseases are born out of depression!