A healthcare worker consoling a patient by holding their hand.

Depression in Seniors is Often Overlooked 

As we age, we may be at an increased risk for depression. Depression in seniors is a treatable medical condition and is not necessarily a normal part of getting older. Depression is not a character flaw. It is not a weakness or fault. Depression is an illness. We all experience sadness on different wavelengths, and that’s OK. But when those negative feelings interfere with our daily living, it’s time to address the issue.

While major life events such as bereavement can trigger it, depression is different from the negative feelings from a difficult life event. Depression causes feelings that are intense, chronic and out of proportion to circumstances. Depression can last for several weeks, months or years, often becoming a chronic illness like diabetes or hypertension that requires treatment. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Undiagnosed depression in seniors can have a physical toll. The National Institutes of Health says that adults with a depressive disorder or symptoms have a 64% higher risk of developing coronary artery disease than those without depression.

Risks for Depression in Seniors

Some people might be prone to depression due to their genetics, but there is no single cause of depression in older adults. The National Council on Aging lists these as some additional risk factors:

  • Chronic conditions (about 80% of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, per the CDC)
  • Decreased functional ability
  • Reduced mobility
  • Chronic pain
  • Financial issues
  • Elder abuse
  • Caregiver stress
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Loneliness

Symptoms of depression in seniors may differ across cultures, as well as by sex/gender. For instance, according to the Mayo Clinic, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression than men. In men, depression often shows up as anger or irritability. Furthermore, symptoms of depression in seniors are often different from those in younger people. Sadness is not always the main symptom. It can be a feeling of numbness or lack of interest in activities, which is often attributed to age.

Why is Depression in Seniors Often Overlooked?

Mental health professionals and healthcare providers might mistake symptoms of depression in seniors as reactions to illness or life changes.

There are several reasons why depression may be overlooked. Older adults may be isolated, with few around them to notice their symptoms or distress. Also, many do not realize that physical pain can sometimes indicate depression. In addition, we may feel stigma admitting to mental health problems and may be reluctant to talk about feelings and ask for help. Certain medications and medical illnesses can bring on depression or have similar symptoms.

As a result, it is important to understand the signs, symptoms and consequences of depression. According to the CDC, here are some of the potential symptoms of depression:

  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment.
  • Memory problems
  • Lack of motivation and energy
  • Slowed movement and speech
  • Neglecting personal care (skipping meals, forgetting meds, neglecting personal hygiene).

Lowering the Risk of Depression

Throughout our lives, we are told that lifestyle changes can improve health and wellness, including mental health. Meditation, breathing exercises and exercise can help people of any age.

According to the National Institute on Aging, we can also lower the risk of depression by:

  • Getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night
  • Avoiding isolation and staying connected with friends and family
  • Doing activities that make them happy
  • Telling family, friends or a healthcare provider if they are developing depressive symptoms. Depression is easier to treat before it escalates.

Your Primary Physician can Help

Health professionals can rule out any underlying medical conditions that could be causing symptoms of depression such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease or medication interactions. A primary care doctor can also screen for signs of depression and recommend treatment that might include medication, therapy or a combination of both.

Many people with mild to moderate depression respond to psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy, which teaches new ways of thinking and behavior, and changing habits that might contribute to depression. Finding the right medication to treat depression is similar to treating some other illnesses; it might take time to find the right medicine, particularly with age-related changes to metabolism and drug interactions.

The most important thing to know if you feel you or someone you know may be suffering from depression is you are not alone. Depression can be treated.

About the Author

Courtney L. Whitt, Ph.D. is Director of Behavioral Health at Healthcare Network, which offers behavioral health services as a routine part of comprehensive care and traditional counseling services. Healthcare Network provides quality primary care services for children and adults in locations throughout Collier County. Click here to schedule an appointment.


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