During the senior years, some changes – from wrinkles to gray hair – are completely normal. But depression isn’t one of them. In fact, by some measures fewer seniors are struggling with depression than younger adults. According to a 2010 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people ages 65 and older were less likely to report any degree of depression than teenagers and young adults. Also, fewer seniors had major depression than the young adults.
However, depression can strike late in life and for many reasons, even among those who’ve never experienced it before. Depression is a serious illness. It can affect overall health, quality of life and even length of life. Staying alert to the causes and warning signs of depression among seniors can lead to earlier treatment and a better outcome.
Health and Life Changes That Can Cause Depression
Heart disease. Your risk of heart disease rises steeply after age 60. Often, heart disease goes hand-in-hand with depression. Among people with heart disease, more than one-third may show signs of depression. Research has also found major depression in 20 percent of heart attack survivors.
In turn, depression can make your health worse if you have heart disease. People who are depressed after a heart attack are more likely to need to return to the hospital, and they’re less likely to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as exercising more.
Brain-related issues. Strokes, which cut off the flow of blood to an area of the brain, also become more common later in life. About one-third of stroke survivors develop depression either just after the event or later in their recovery.
A similar concern is what is known as vascular depression. This condition can arise when the blood vessels that lead to the brain become damaged over time, reducing blood flow. This can affect areas of the brain that regulate mood. Other brain-related conditions that become more common with age and raise the risk of depression include Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Diabetes. Though fewer than 10 percent of Americans overall have diabetes, that number rises to more than 25 percent in adults ages 65 and older. According to the National Institutes of Health, people with diabetes have twice the risk of depression. Experts aren’t sure why. However, living with diabetes can be stressful, since controlling it requires effort and the disease can lead to many serious complications. Over time, the stress it causes might lead to depression.
Medications. As you get older, you’re more likely to take medications. In fact, many seniors take quite a few different medicines. Some medications, including several for treating heart problems and blood pressure, have been linked to depression.
Sleeping problems. Insomnia is a common problem among seniors. Poor sleep, in turn, raises the risk that older adults will develop depression. It can also lengthen the duration of a depressive episode.
Life changes. Many developments that are likely to occur in the later stages of your life can leave you feeling depressed. These include:
- For most people, this change doesn’t lead to depression, but it can, particularly among those who retire early.
- Money issues. Financial strain is one of the most common sources of stress in older adults, and it raises the risk of lingering depression.
- Deaths of loved ones and friends.
- Loss of mobility and independence.
- Spending less time socializing. Loneliness can raise the risk of depression.
- Children and grandchildren living far away.
- The stress of acting as a caregiver for an ailing friend or loved one.
Managing Depression Late in Life
You may not realize that you have depression, because the symptoms are not always obvious and can appear to be related to health problems or other factors. Symptoms of depression include:
- Poor appetite
- A sense of hopelessness
- Trouble concentrating
- Tiredness or lack of energy
- Loss of interest in socializing
If you suspect that you may be suffering from depression, talk to your doctor. Depression in older adults is treatable. One common option is therapy with a counselor. Even a short course of sessions in which you learn new thought processes or habits may be helpful. Your doctor may also recommend treatment with antidepressant medications, which have been found highly effective in treating depression.