General cognitive function and specific language and memory processing abilities were compared in dementia of the Alzheimer type (DAT), depressed and normal control subjects. Several tests clearly differentiated between DAT and depressed subjects including a verbal fluency task, several components of a word memory test, an IQ deterioration index, and the Mini-Mental State Examination. The inability of DAT subjects to take advantage of semantic cues in both the verbal fluency and in the memory test contrasted with the performance of depressed and normal subjects, who were able to benefit from semantic cues. Depressed patients displayed deficits compared with normal controls on the more effortful verbal fluency task but not on the memory test. Tasks that are least effortful, rely on semantic associations, and require declarative memory are most likely to discriminate between DAT and depression.