Is It Depression or Dementia? Recognizing the Difference.

By Gail Belfer, MSW, LCSW, CDP – Director of Holocaust Survivor Services & Advocacy

Many individuals are concerned when they notice changes in their personality, mood, and behavior – or in their loved ones. They worry that these changes are symptoms of dementia and may delay going to the doctor because they are afraid of this diagnosis. What is important to know is that depression is often mistaken for dementia.

There are several symptoms these illnesses share, which is why it can be difficult to differentiate between the two. The distinction can be made by understanding what is generally behind both conditions.

Dementia is a chronic, progressive disease caused by brain disease or injury that presents itself through impaired memory, personality change and decreased reasoning. Someone with dementia may have trouble communicating, or may appear confused and emotionally labile.

Depression is a mental health disorder that affects behavior, thinking, and disposition. Someone with depression may appear distracted or exhibit increased anxiety, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, changes in sleeping or eating habits, or may seem tired all the time.

Both diseases can cause confusion and forgetfulness, so someone who is depressed may appear with those symptoms. Depression makes it difficult to concentrate on things and thereby make it challenging to remember conversations or keep to a schedule. So, forgetfulness is not necessarily due to diminished capacity, but rather the inability to focus on things other than the negative or sad thoughts that come with depression.

Don’t delay going to the doctor to get a definitive diagnosis since early treatment is most effective, especially with dementia. If you or your loved one are suffering from depression, it is a treatable and manageable condition. Medication coupled with talk therapy has a high success rate in decreasing depression and helping people feel better. And, if dementia is suspected, you and your family can receive appropriate medical intervention and put necessary supports into place.

Here at JFCS, we have skilled counselors and geriatric social workers who can support you and your family through a diagnosis of depression, dementia, or any other health conditions. Please reach out to us at (856) 424-1333 or to get started.

Gail Belfer is a licensed clinical social worker who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with dual degrees in social work and psychology. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania with a specialization in health and aging. Gail’s specialties as a geriatric social worker include grief and loss, life transitions, and caregiver counseling. She works with many Holocaust Survivors, offering counseling and case management services. Gail is also trained as a  certified dementia practitioner and trainer. To read her full bio, click HERE.