Seasonal Affective Disorder In Those With Alzheimer’s Or Dementia

As we continue through winter, we often find that throughout this season many of us feel a bit blue due to the lack of sunshine, cold weather and being stuck inside for months.  And whether you are a caregiver or a senior living with Alzheimer’s disease, the long winter months can impact your emotional well-being. Feeling a bit depressed can be an ordinary reaction to the post-holiday winter months, but when that feeling of sadness persists for more than a few weeks, it can signal a bigger issue.

Elderly woman experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder during Christmas.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Many of us overlook that our elderly loved ones may  in fact be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder is brought on by lack of sunlight during shorter winter days, lack of vitamin D, and disrupted sleep patterns.  While depression can occur anytime of the year in those living with Alzheimer’s, SAD is a specific type of depression that affects people on a seasonal level each year, usually at the same time (beginning when winter days are very short and sunlight is limited.)

Many seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia are at risk of developing depression because of the on-going changes in their brains’ chemistries. SAD is a specific type depression, and can present itself in seniors who are not diagnosed with clinical depression.

Since seniors living with Alzheimer’s are often unable to recognize and/or identify their own symptoms of depression, it is important for caregivers to be aware of the signs and symptoms of SAD.

Elderly man in a wheelchair sitting inside in the dark, which can exacerbate Seasonal Affective Disorder.

 

Signs & Symptoms

Activities, socialization, and resources can help seniors combat seasonal depression, but you first should explore the signs and causes of SAD to effectively help treat it.

Be sure to contact your loved one’s physician if you recognize these symptoms of SAD in your love one:

  1. Increased anxiety
  2. Unusual irritability
  3. Changes in appetite and sleeping habits
  4. Lack of motivation and energy
  5. Lack of personal care
  6. Feelings of helplessness

Signs of SAD include a loss of energy, sadness, changes in appetite and sleeping habits, low energy and irritability, and loss of interest in socializing and other activities.  Studies have shown that women are more likely to suffer from SAD than men, and of course those in colder geographic areas are at greater risk than those who live in sunny climates.

Caregivers may notice a sudden change in mood, appetite, or energy level in their loved one, other symptoms may involve, sadness, sleep disturbances or lethargy.  The key in assessing for SAD is to tune into sudden changes that seem to revolve around the cold, dark months of winter.  Any symptoms of depression should be reported to the physician regardless of the season, and since many of these signs and symptoms can overlap symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease it is sometimes difficult to determine if your loved one is experiencing SAD or something else.  If you recognize any of these signs, it’s important to talk to the physician about them.  The attending physician will decide as to whether a screening for depression or SAD should be scheduled.

Senior walking outside during the winter.

Tips To Help Manage The Symptoms Of SAD

For seniors with Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms associated with SAD can be helped through activities, distractions, or sometimes just a brief change of scenery.

Effective treatments may vary from person to person, but can include talk therapy, medications for depression or perhaps even light therapy, which has been shown to help.  Other tips for managing the symptoms of SAD are:

  • Try to getting outdoors, even if simply take a daily walk, weather permitting
  • Eat a well-balanced healthy diet with plenty of bright colored fruits and vegetables
  • Exercise at least 3x per week
  • Listen to music that is uplifting
  • Stay active, plan indoor activities and remain socially engaged
  • Get plenty of sleep during the winter months

Additionally, your loved one can help to combat the winter blues by eating a nutritious diet, and increasing intake of Vitamin D.  Studies have shown that the elderly are an at-risk group for vitamin D deficiency.  In fact, symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can include muscle and bone pain, excessive fatigue, and depressed mood.  Vitamin D also plays an increasingly important role in physical and mental health, and this vital nutrient has been linked to bone and heart health, cancer and diabetes prevention, and increased immune function.

The safest way to treat or prevent deficiency is to ensure your senior eats a variety of foods fortified with vitamin D. Vitamin D can be obtained naturally by eating beef liver, egg yolks, cheeses, and salmon. Some types of milk, yogurt, cereals and juice are fortified to contain extra doses of the vitamin as well.

Elderly woman reading.

Other Treatments To Help Manage SAD

Treatment for SAD may also involve a combination of light therapy, medication, and/or psychotherapy.   Light therapy seems to be particularly helpful in the treatment of SAD.

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy is artificial light that mimics natural outdoor light. It has been shown that light therapy may change brain chemicals related to mood.  Typically, light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light box that emits a bright light and helps to offset the lack of sunlight in winter months.  The light box (which is essentially a fluorescent lamp) emits a spectrum of light intended to simulate natural sunlight. A good quality light box will come with a filter that blocks harmful UV rays so that the light does not damage a person’s eyes or skin.

If your loved one is diagnosed with SAD, their doctor may instruct them to sit in front of a light box for 30 to 45 minutes a day, usually in the morning, in order to make up for the lack of sunlight many people experience during winter.

This method of treatment is known to work quickly — many times within a few days — and has few side effects.

In some cases, medications — such as antidepressants — are given to help treat SAD.  The one main disadvantage to antidepressant therapy is that it takes several weeks to take effect.   Thus if a loved one is prone to SAD, it is best to begin this form of treatment prior to the onset of symptoms each year.  Your loved one’s physician will consider if an antidepressant is needed and if so,  which type of antidepressant is best for those with Alzheimer’s disease.

For some seniors, psychotherapy is another potential treatment for SAD.  Therapy can help individuals deal with negative thoughts and behaviors, learn coping mechanisms and to deal more effectively with stress.  The attending physician can make a referral if necessary for your loved one with Alzheimer’s, if psychotherapy is recommended.

 

Elderly man sitting outside in the grass.

As you can see, SAD can impact just about every aspect of life, from socialization to appetite, self-care, cognitive level of functioning and more.  Therefore, it’s vital to seek professional help right away if signs are noticed.  Luckily, when you recognize the signs of seasonal affective disorder and know how to make meaningful changes in your loved one’s daily routine, you can help keep their spirits up during the winter months.

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