3 Ways Your Mood Is Telling You That Your Brain's in Trouble

Your emotions could be an early warning sign of something serious.

Dementia—a term that encompasses the diseases that cause cognitive decline—is a condition on the rise: Over 55 million people worldwide live with dementia, and that number almost doubles every twenty years. Although there is currently no cure for dementia, there are many benefits to catching early warning signs of the debilitating disease. These include access to treatment and clinical trials, as well the opportunity to make lifestyle adjustments that may help preserve cognitive function.

Because dementia affects your brain cells' ability to communicate with each other, familiar early warning signs of the disease include memory loss and confusion. People suffering from dementia may experience trouble speaking, such as using the wrong word for something or forgetting names. But mood changes are a lesser-known potential red flag for dementia. "When brain cells cannot communicate normally, thinking, behavior, and feelings can be affected," the Alzheimer's Association explains. Read on to find out what types of mood changes could be telling you that your brain is in danger.

READ THIS NEXT: If You Can't Remember These 4 Things, It Could Be an Early Alzheimer's Sign.

Don't ignore or dismiss these feelings.

Depressed mature woman sitting on the floor at home

Feelings, not just behavior, are affected by damage to the brain cells. "Researchers have long known that depression and dementia go hand in hand," according to Harvard Health. "Yet they've debated over whether the two conditions simply share common causes, or whether depression is an early sign of dementia."

Research now shows that both things are true, and that in addition, "depression late in life may indicate that changes have occurred in the brain that can make us more prone to developing dementia." M. Cornelia Cremens, MD, tells Harvard Health that older people may be in denial about depression, but that "ignoring sadness or dismissing it as a normal side effect of aging could allow potentially treatable memory issues to progress unchecked."

Becoming isolated or withdrawn, experiencing changes in appetite and sleep habits, having suicidal thoughts, and being agitated and irritable are all signs of depression that may be related to dementia.

Apathy is a common, but overlooked, symptom of dementia.

older white man looking out window feeling apathetic

We may associate moodiness with a mercurial disposition—one that goes from happy to sad to angry within a short time frame. But the absence of these moods can be concerning, as well. Apathy—defined as a lack of feeling, emotion, interest, or enthusiasm—can be a subtle early warning sign of dementia.

New research calls apathy the earliest psychiatric symptom of Alzheimer's, and reports that degeneration in a specific part of the brain (known as the nucleus accumbens) can result in apathy. These findings not only offer up a new early sign of dementia to look out for, but suggest that "disrupting this process could slow the progression of Alzheimer's-related dementia."

Apathy can be hard to diagnose. The symptom can't easily be assessed, and is often misdiagnosed because it's associated with other conditions, such as depression. According to the Alzheimer's Society, apathy as a symptom of dementia may manifest as a lack of interest in talking to people, losing the motivation to perform routine tasks, or seeming uninterested by new information.

The term "sundowning" refers to a different kind of mood change.

woman looking sad in the evening

"Sundowning" is the term for when people with cognitive decline experience heightened feelings of agitation, depression, and confusion in the late afternoon or evening.

The exact cause of sundowning is not known. "One possibility is that Alzheimer's-related brain changes can affect a person's 'biological clock,' leading to confused sleep-wake cycles," according to the National Institute on Aging. "This may result in agitation and other sundowning behaviors." Other potential causes are fatigue, discomfort, depression, and boredom.

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There are ways you can decrease your risk of dementia.


With no known cure for dementia, and multiple symptoms to look out for, it's important to know that there are a lot of habits you can implement to decrease your risk of cognitive decline.

Some risk factors can't be addressed, such as age (your risk increases after the age of 65), gender (women who are over the age of 80 are at higher risk for dementia), and ethnicity (some studies show that there may also be an increased risk in Black ethnic groups). But some surprising preventative measures may help lower your risk of dementia.

Studies have shown that poor oral health is a factor related to cognitive decline; a recommended daily routine includes brushing and flossing. And recent research shows that having a companion animal may benefit your health in various ways that include protection against cognitive decline.

If you or someone you love is experiencing mood changes that cause concern, speak with your doctor. Early diagnosis of dementia allows people to both seek help and to incorporate healthy habits into their lifestyles that can boost brain health and potentially add years of quality time to their lives.

READ THIS NEXT: If You Keep Saying This, It May Be a Sign of Dementia, Experts Say

Luisa Colón
Luisa Colón is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Latina, and many more. Read more
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