If you or someone you’re closed to has experienced depression, then you already known that it’s a serious mood disorder. It affects the way a person feels, acts, and thinks. Although depression is common among older adults, clinical depression is not considered a normal part of aging. On the contrary, research has found that most seniors feel satisfied with their lives than younger people, in spite having more physical problems. Studies also show that if someone experienced depression as a younger person, he or she is more likely to have depression as an older adult.

The types of depression that older adults experience are the same as younger adults. These include the following:

  •  Major Depressive Disorder – a depressed mood that lasts at least two weeks and interferes with a person’s ability to perform daily tasks
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder (previously called Dysthymia) – includes symptoms lasting more than two years, but the person is still able to perform daily tasks, unlike someone with Major Depressive Disorder
  • Substance/Medication-Induced Depressive Disorder – depression induced by the use of substances, like alcohol or pain medication
  • Depressive Disorder Due to A Medical Condition – depression related to a separate illness, like hypothyroidism or diabetes
  • Other forms of depression include seasonal affective disorder, psychotic depression, and postmenopausal depression.

Risk Factors for Depression

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to predict the risk factors for depression. For some people, depression may occur after a major life event, such as a loved one’s death or a serious medical diagnosis. Others may experience changes in the brain that affect mood and result in depression. Another source of depression can be intense ongoing stressors seen in people who care for loved ones. Lastly, some people become depressed for no clear reason.

Studies have found that the following factors are related to a risk of developing depression, but don’t necessarily cause it: 

  • Genetics: people who have a family history of depression can have a higher risk
  • Medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Lack of exercise or physical activity
  • Stress, including caregiver and work stress
  • Sleep problems
  • Psychical or other functional limitations that make engaging in daily activities difficult
  • Substance abuse, alcohol or drugs 

How Symptoms of Depression Differ

Depression in older adults can be difficult to recognize because they can have different symptoms than younger people. Some older adults with depression have other symptoms besides sadness. Sometimes they can experience more of a numb feeling as well as a lack of interest in daily activities. In addition, they may not be interested in talking about their feelings. 

The following is a list of common symptoms often seen in older adults with depression. 

  • Sleeping more or less
  • Eating more or less
  • Persistent sad or anxious mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness, or having trouble relaxing
  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
  • Lack of energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts 

A therapist or psychiatrist can help you determine how serious your depression is. In the best case scenario, you may only need some therapy and lifestyle changes.  It’s been posited that the three main causes of depression in older people are poor physical health, social isolation and loss. 

Poor health and depression in older adults

Physical illness can cause depression both directly and indirectly. Medical conditions such as vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disease, cancer, and even colds can change the way your body works and cause depression. 

Medical conditions that make it harder for someone to take care of themselves and reduce mobility often means having to ask for help. This can affect a person’s self esteem, cause them to feel helpless and feel a loss of independence and dignity. Sometimes the medicines you take can contribute to depression, especially blood pressure medicines, pain medication and steroids. 

Loss and depression in older adults

People tend to experience intense periods of loss as they get older. This can be loss of family members or friends, and it can also involve loss of health, pets or their home. While some people are more resilient and cope well with difficult circumstances, the experience of repeated loss can trigger depression. At any age, if you experience the loss of a loved one it’s a good idea to consider some grief counseling. 

Social isolation and depression in older adults

Older people can sometimes become isolated from their friends, family or communities. This can be due to friends and peers passing away, or because it’s more difficult to get out to visit people. 

As people age, they often spend more time alone than when they were younger. While everyone needs social connections, studies show that social isolation is associated with higher rates of depression. Whether you’re young or older, make sure you address feelings of loneliness. If you can’t see your family or friends in person, reach out over the phone or virtually. 

If you have some of the above symptoms and they have lasted for more than two weeks, you should talk with a doctor. They could be signs of either depression or a different health condition. It’s a bad idea to ignore the warning signs because depression can worsen and lead to death by suicide. 

There’s also some evidence that depression may be prevented with healthy lifestyle changes can have long-term benefits to your mental health.  Here are a few things you can do: 

  • Stay physically active and eat a healthy, whole foods diet. This can help avoid illnesses that can bring on disability or depression. Some diets, such as the low-sodium DASH diet, have been shown to reduce risk of depression.
  • Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.
  • Stay in touch with your family and friends.
  • Participate in hobbies and activities you enjoy. 

Some people with depression use complementary health approaches, like yoga, to improve well-being and cope with stress. While there is evidence that suggests these approaches help, they work best when used in combination with other treatments such as traditional therapy.

Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.


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