Is Depression a Normal Part of Aging?

elderly woman with depression looking outside window and frowning

Depression Among Seniors

Depression among seniors is a real concern that has serious consequences. But the good news is that it’s not just a normal part of aging – and there are things seniors and families can do to reduce the risk of depression.

Age and Depression

How Depression Affects Seniors

Signs to Look For

Reduce the Risk
 
 
Age and Depression

There’s a common assumption that depression is a normal part of aging. While it’s true that older adults are at a higher risk of depression, it’s not a given. In fact, depression is less common among seniors than other age groups. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of senior depression range from less than 1% to about 5%.

What increases the risk of depression in seniors? There are a number of possible factors.

  • Health conditions – Depression is more common in people with multiple or chronic health problems. The CDC says about 80% of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and 50% have two or more.
  • Life changes – Transitioning from work to retirement life, the deaths of friends or loved ones, or financial hardships can contribute to depression.
  • Isolation – Feeling disconnected and lonely raises the risk of depression significantly.
  • Medication – Depression can be a side effect of some medications when taken alone or in combination with others. And around 36% of seniors take five or more prescription drugs.

 
 
How Depression Affects Seniors

Treatment for depression in seniors is critical to their health and well-being. Yet older adults with depression don’t often get help. They may get misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed altogether. Why? And what happens when they don’t get the care they need?

  • Health care providers can dismiss symptoms of depression in seniors as just a reaction to the life changes that come with age, and therefore undertreat the medical condition.
  • Symptoms can be misunderstood. Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging, and some seniors worry it means they have some form of dementia – so they don’t want to talk about it. But forgetfulness can also be a symptom of depression or anxiety. Other symptoms of depression can be mistaken for heart disease, thyroid disorders or Parkinson’s disease.
  • They don’t always feel sad. Sadness isn’t necessarily a symptom of depression, so if they don’t seem blue or don’t report feeling sad, depression may not be considered as a potential problem.
  • They’re reluctant to admit depression. Older adults may feel that depression is a character flaw or will make them a burden. They might blame themselves and feel too ashamed to seek treatment. Or they may worry that treatment is too expensive. Overall, older adults are more likely to seek treatment for physical problems than for depression.

The mind and body are connected, and what affects one impacts the other.

  • Depression has been linked to weakened immune systems, increased illness, problems sleeping, an increase in body aches and decreased appetites.
  • Depression or anxiety in seniors is also associated with a faster cognitive decline and greater risk of dementia.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that depression is the single most significant risk factor for suicide among seniors in the U.S.

 
 
Signs to Look For

Symptoms will vary from person to person, but here are some of the more common signs of depression in seniors:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Fatigue/lack of energy
  • Feeling irritable, nervous or guilty for no apparent reason
  • Having a hard time concentrating or remembering things
  • Sleep disruption – either too much or too little sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Body aches and pains, or headaches
  • Digestive problems/abdominal cramps
  • Withdrawal
  • Thoughts of suicide

If you or your loved one is experiencing symptoms like these, it’s important you seek help right away. Medications and/or talk therapy can be extremely effective, and the sooner treatment begins, the better.
 
 
Reduce the Risk

It may not be possible to prevent depression, especially if there’s a family history of it or there are traumatic life events. But you can take steps to reduce the risk of later-in-life depression.

Build social connections – Since isolation and loneliness can be contributing factors to depression, it makes sense to find ways of staying socially connected. According to a recent study from Northwestern University, positive, satisfying relationships and stimulating activities are also linked to brain health and a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. And another study showed that an active social life is not only associated with better cardiovascular outcomes and stronger immune system, but also with less risk of depression.

  • Find ways to meet and interact with others. Book clubs, volunteer groups, fitness or art classes, travel groups or choirs are all ways to enjoy the company of other people.
  • Cultivate relationships. Group activities aren’t the only way to get connected. Small groups or one-on-one relationships can be even more meaningful. Get to know your next-door neighbor better, set up a regular coffee date with a friend, call or FaceTime the grandkids – however you do it, it’s worth the effort to reach out.
  • Consider built-in opportunities. One of the benefits of a senior living community is that social opportunities are part of the DNA of community life. With an activity calendar that’s always full of options, and friends and neighbors always within reach, it’s easy to stay socially healthy.

Take care of yourselfExercise, good nutrition and socialization are all good for your brain health and can help fight depression. Making sure you keep moving and eating well can go a long way toward your physical and mental well-being. As you explore senior living options, find out about wellness opportunities that can help reduce your risk of depression.

  • Are there convenient places for you to exercise?
  • Are your fitness options affordable or included in your monthly fees?
  • Are fitness classes appropriate for seniors?
  • Do the dining venues offer nutritious meal options?
  • Is a nutritionist involved in the dining program?
  • Is there a holistic approach to wellness that helps you take care of mind, body and spirit?

Depression is not a normal part of aging. There are things you can do to treat it and steps you can take to reduce the risk of developing it. The more you do for yourself now, the better chance you have for a healthier, happier aging experience.
 
 
Sources

Depression in Older Adults
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Kaiser Permanente
Depression May Speed Up Brain Aging
Good Friends Might Be Your Best Brain Booster as You Age
The Role of Social Networks in Adult Health. Health Psychology, 2014