Seniors and Depression


Nearly 1 in 5 adults over the age of 65 suffers from depression. That rate is four times higher than the general population. Many of these individuals have experienced one or more depressive episodes during their lifetimes. For the rest, even those in their 80s and 90s, this is their first experience with depression.

Failure to Recognize Depression in the Older Population

Far too often, depression experienced by the elderly goes unrecognized and untreated. Increasing social isolation, family issues and money worries might all be factors that result in depression. Caregivers and family members might assume that depression is a natural response to aging and increasing infirmity, and not see it as a painful disease that can be successfully treated.

For others, the symptoms of depression might be misunderstood and attributed to a variety of ailments, including alzheimer's disease, dementia, thyroid disorders, heart disease or arthritis.

Then there are those who believe that depression is a character flaw, an inappropriate expression of "feeling sorry for oneself." They are too ashamed to acknowledge that there is a problem or to ask for help.

Symptoms of Depression in the Elderly

The symptoms of depression in the elderly are somewhat different from those experienced by younger populations. Memory problems, confusion, inability to maintain social relationships, irritability, hallucinations, delusions, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, and reports of vague pains might be indicators of depression in a senior.

Unfortunately, every one of these symptoms could also be an indicator for some other diagnosis. So, someone seeing their doctor for any of these complaints is more likely to undergo a workup for a physical disorder than an evaluation for depression.

The Consequences of Not Treating Depression in the Elderly

Depression can impact the brain, causing or exacerbating mental decline. It also has an effect on the body, negatively impacting the immune system and contributing to the decline in overall health of many seniors. It has long been known to have a damaging impact on heart disease, as well.

The risk of suicide is high in this population. In fact, the highest rate of suicide in the United States is among older white men. Many suicide victims reach out for help, but too often depression is missed as a possible risk factor. Within the elderly population, it is more likely that a depressed patient will reach out for treatment of physical ailments than of mental ailments.

Treatment of Depression in the Older Population

Treatment protocols for the elderly are generally very successful. More than 80 percent of diagnosed clinically depressed seniors can be effectively treated by standard depression treatments, including medication, psychotherapy and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT.) These are the same treatment options that those in younger populations find success with.

Many patients will need to try more than one medication to find the one that works. Side effects and potential interactions with other medications prescribed to the patient will also be factors in deciding on the best treatment.

Psychosocial treatment is especially effective in those seniors who lack social or family support, or lack coping skills to deal with their issues.

ECT is effectively used for severe depressive episodes that are not responsive to other treatments. For many severely depressed individuals, ECT can be a lifesaving therapy, resolving depression quickly.

Sources: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and
Image: Photo courtesy WikiCommons


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