The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has reported that depression affects more than 6.5 million Americans aged 65 or older. In fact, research has shown that most older adults with depression have been experiencing episodes of depression throughout their lives—however, there are reports of individuals experiencing their first onset in their 80s or 90s.
What is depression?
Depression is “not just having ‘the blues’ or the emotions we feel when grieving the loss of a loved one,” as explained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Instead, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines depression as a medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, think and act.
How is depression ‘different’ in older adults?
According to the CDC, many adults are severely misdiagnosed and undertreated as a result of the misconception that geriatric depression is simply part of the “normal” process of aging and “natural” reactions to illnesses, losses and/or life transitions.
False assumptions and misunderstandings of geriatric depression can then lead caregivers and healthcare providers to dismissing the symptoms. Though it is true that older adults are at an increased risk for experiencing depression, the CDC states that it is a true and treatable medical condition—just like diabetes or hypertension.
What are the symptoms of depression in older adults?
Symptoms of depression in older adults may differ from symptoms of individuals within other age demographics and may include:
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities and hobbies
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Changes in appetite with signs of either over- or under-eating
- Changes in sleep patterns with signs of either over- or under-sleeping
- Loss of energy
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating
- Thoughts of death or suicide
In fact, symptoms of depression in older adults are sometimes mistaken for signs of:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Heart disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Thyroid disorders
What causes geriatric depression?
Depression is a complex medical illness that can affect anyone of any age group at any given time. Some medical experts have suggested that is caused by genetic factors, while others have argued that there are also biological, social and psychological causes that contribute to depression.
As outlined by the APA, several factors can cause depression including:
- An individual’s biochemistry (or “chemical imbalances”)
- A family history of depression
- Traumatic events such as violence, neglect, abuse, poverty or death of a loved one
- An individual with low self-esteem and a highly pessimistic view on life
For older adults, several factors can contribute to depression including:
- Limited mobility
- Chronic medical conditions
- Social isolation and loneliness
- Financial hardships
- Widowhood or divorce
- Reduced sense of purpose
- Anxiety and/or fears of dying
How is geriatric depression diagnosed and treated?
A thorough diagnostic evaluation is used to assess and diagnose an individual with depression and typically includes:
- A thorough interview with the individual
- Symptom identification
- Overview of family, cultural, lifestyle, health and environmental factors
Once diagnosed, depression can be treated through a combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle modifications such as:
- Increased physical activity
- Improved food and nutrition
- Getting enough sleep
- Having more social interactions with friends or family
As explained by the APA, depression is among the most treatable of mental disorders—with 80% to 90% of those diagnosed eventually responding well to treatment and finding relief from their symptoms.
What happens if geriatric depression is untreated?
Geriatric depression increases a person’s risk for medical illness and cognitive (mental) decline. If depression goes unrecognized or untreated, it can have fatal consequences including suicide. As shared by PsyCom, the second highest suicide rate in the United States in 2015 occurred in people 85 years or older.
If an elderly patient shows any signs of suicidal thoughts or behaviors, the care team at Unicity Healthcare urges seeking immediate assistance.
Unicity Senior Advisors are here to help with navigating your loved one’s needs. Our experienced social workers and nurses are committed to managing your senior’s health care needs and seeking appropriate treatment.
The team at Unicity Healthcare urges seniors and their caregivers to utilize these tips to help prevent and treat geriatric depression.