Connecting Bipolar Disorder and Alzheimer’s

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Bipolar disorder is a physiologically demonstrable mental illness – the condition can lead to reduced volume in certain areas of the brain, especially with no treatment. It has been reported in over 75 studies that bipolar is linked to cognitive dysfunction, like poor verbal memory, struggle to maintain focus, poor executive functioning and reduced information processing speed. The question is whether these negative outcomes put a person at increased risk for developing dementia later on?

A study of Taiwanese health records found a definite link between having bipolar and risk for dementia. The study looked at 9,304 patients with dementia and 55,500 control subjects of similar ages and genders without dementia. After controlling for other factors, researchers found that bipolar patients had a significantly higher risk for developing dementia. The problem seemed to show up around middle age.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder affecting 5.7 million American adults, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. The median age for when the condition becomes apparent is 25 years. The disorder seems to be inherited and can be managed with lifestyle and medication.

Bipolar disorder shows up in one of three forms: bipolar I, bipolar II and cyclothymic disorder. Bipolar I is defined as having one episode of mania (the positive pole) and one or more episodes of depression (the negative pole). Bipolar I shows up in women and men in rather equal numbers, though women tend to first manifest depression and men tend to first manifest mania.

Bipolar II is similar to bipolar I with a few key differences. Mania in bipolar II is called hypomania because it is far more subtle, but the depression of bipolar II is quite severe. This form of the illness affects a greater number of women than men.

Cyclothymic disorder involves mood swings, but ones which are not quite so extreme. The person with cyclothymic disorder ranges from hypomania to mild depression. The episodes, however, can sometimes occur several times a week, or even in a single day. This form of the illness also affects more women than men.

The hopeful news is that bipolar patients who take lithium to help manage symptoms may actually be protecting their brains against later dementia or Alzheimer’s. Initial investigations are pointing in the direction of neural protection. So far at least one study suggests that long-term use of lithium could lower the risk of Alzheimer’s from a high of 33 percent down to the 5 percent faced by the general population.

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