Depression in the Elderly is a Serious, but Often Misunderstood Problem

Feb 17 12:26 2007 Kellie Fowler Print This Article

Symptoms of depression are not a normal part of aging. Often it is overlooked and goes untreated. Learn about risk factors, common depression warning signs, assessment and treatment.

Of the nearly 35 million Americans age 65 and older,Guest Posting an estimated 2 million suffer from some form of depression and another 5 million may be plagued with symptoms of depression but not be experiencing enough symptoms for a clinical diagnosis, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Despite the high incidence of occurrence, symptoms of depression in the elderly are not a normal part of aging. It is, however, often times linked to another serious illness, such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, cancer or stroke.

Additionally, older Americans are disproportionately likely to die by suicide. Comprising only 13 percent of the U.S. population, individuals age 65 and older accounted for 18 percent of all suicide deaths in 2000. Among the highest rates (when categorized by gender and race) were white men age 85 and older: 59 deaths per 100,000 persons in 2000, more than five times the national U.S. rate of 10.6 per 100,000.

Who’s at Risk?

Regardless of age, studies show that women are more likely to become depressed, with contributing factors including biological issues such as hormonal changes. This also makes older women more susceptible to depression.

Additionally, because of the stresses related to care giving ( for partners, children, etc.), which tends to be associated with women more then men, women are more vulnerable to depression, especially those who are older and may be widowed or lacking a strong support system of family, friends and a social life.

Other factors that increase the risk for depression in the elderly include:

  • Illness or injury
  • Living alone
  • Suffering from pain
  • Use of certain medications
  • Grief
  • Recent surgery
  • History of depression
  • Substance or alcohol abuse

Common Signs of Depression in the Elderly

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), depression in older people is often characterized by memory problems, confusion, social withdrawal, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, irritability, and, in some cases, delusions and hallucinations.

The NAMI offers these general clues to look for when trying to gauge if an elderly person you care about is suffering from depression:

  • Persistent, vague complaints
  • Help-seeking
  • Frequent calling
  • Demanding behavior

Assessing Depression in the Elderly

Because depression in the elderly can be linked to other medical conditions and further complicated by illnesses associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, it can be very difficult to diagnose.

Also adding to this difficulty is the fact that many elderly people are simply not comfortable expressing their struggles and may therefore have an unwillingness to acknowledge that they feel depressed.

To determine if an elderly person is depressed, their physician may conduct a physical examination to help establish if there is a medical illness causing the depression, request a psychological evaluation, as well as blood tests.

There is also a self-administered test for those over 65, which measures depression in the elderly. It is called the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS). It is comprised of 30 simple yes-no questions that helps the user assess if they are depressed or not by rating the answers.

Treatment for Depression in the Elderly

Sometimes depression in the elderly stems from loneliness and this can be helped by social interventions, volunteer work when physically able, group interactions, or regular visits from loved ones and friends.

Treatment of underlying medical conditions or illnesses, which may also be the root cause, can help. This will need to be determined by a physician.

Likewise, the treating physician may want to discontinuation the use of certain medications. This may also help to alleviate the symptoms of depression.

Antidepressants may help, too. These will need to be prescribed by a physician and should be carefully monitored for side effects. The doses of antidepressants used for treating depression in the elderly are usually lower and increased more slowly than in younger adults.

Getting Help

If you or someone you know is showing signs of depression, it is important to get help, especially for people 65 years or older, where the rate of suicide is a growing concern. Help is available and you should consult with your physician immediately.

Source: Office of Statistics and Programming, NCIPC, CDC. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARSTM):

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About Article Author

Kellie Fowler
Kellie Fowler

Kellie Fowler is an award-winning writer and has written for Associated Press, PR Newswire, Fortune 500 companies, newspapers, national business and healthcare magazines. She enjoys educating consumers about depression help related topics such as depression tests, signs of depression and treatment options.

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