Depression Not a Normal Part of Aging

Depression is not a natural part of growing old. Insted, it's a medical condition that should be treated aggressively.

Depression in older adults, or in anyone, is a serious illness. Some groups are at higher risk, but the average older person is not depressed any more than a young person. Depression affects about 7 million out of the 39 million adults older than 65 in the U.S. Non-Hispanic white men older than 85 have the highest rates of suicide. Many of these men visited their doctor within the last month. Factors that may add to older adults' risk for depression is losing control over changes related to the aging process and losing people that they love.

Missed diagnosis

Depression is often not diagnosed because of stereotypes that family, caregivers, or even health care providers have that older adults are depressed in general. Older adults may mask their depression by complaining about a physical problem, so diagnosis can take longer.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these are typical signs of depression:

  • Sleep problems, including too little, too much, or rising earlier than desired

  • Decreased pleasure and interest in previously enjoyed activities

  • Decreased energy or concentration

  • Increase or decrease in appetite

  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

  • Self-destructive and suicidal behavior

Older adults are more likely to die by suicide. Of every 100,000 people ages 75 and older, 16.3 died by suicide. This figure is higher than the national average of 11.3 suicides per 100,000 in the general population.

Depression often occurs at the same time as another serious illness, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

Lingering symptoms

Health care providers look for symptoms of depression that continue for weeks at a time. If you have symptoms, your provider will also do a physical exam and rule out other causes for the symptoms. These can include certain medications or medical conditions. A person who is physically ill and not getting better often has an underlying depression. Medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both can be effective in treating depression. Mild cases of depression may be eased by psychotherapy alone. People with moderate to severe depression often need antidepressant medication.

You can help prevent depression by staying active and being connected to other people through family, community activities, senior groups, or a religious affiliation.

If you notice signs of depression in yourself, a friend, or a family member, don't wait until it becomes severe. Talk with your health care provider about your own symptoms. Or talk to the person with depression, and encourage him or her to speak with a doctor and seek treatment from a mental health professional.