Recognizing Depression in Older Adults

November 29, 2019
 

Depression is one of the most common mental health ailments in older adults. Recognizing depression in this population is often difficult because it’s easy to assume that their symptoms are a normal part of aging and overlook them. However, depression is a real illness that can interfere with the way your loved one feels and thinks.
 

Older adult woman with soft smile
It's important to recognize the symptoms and risk factors of depression in older adults so you can be an advocate.
 

What are the signs and symptoms of depression in older adults?

Depression can be more dangerous for aging adults, as it may mimic other medical conditions or incapacities that are commonly associated with old age. This may make it harder to identify whether your loved one is suffering from depression or a different medical concern. Certain medical conditions can also amplify the symptoms of depression.

Depression in seniors can show itself through many different signs or symptoms, similar to how it would in a person of any age:
 

  • Feeling of sadness or “emptiness"
  • Feeling of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Lack of motivation or energy
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Slowed movement or speech
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Personal neglect
  • Unexplained aches and pains; that don’t go away even with treatment
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
     

It may impact an aging adult’s ability to do daily activities, such as:

  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Working
  • Social activities with friends and family
  • Difficulty managing the household or doing everyday activities


Closeup of serious eyes on an older adult woman
There are a variety of symptoms an older adult who has depression might experience, and some can interfere with activities of daily living.


Older adults with depression may experience several symptoms or very few symptoms from the list above. This makes it even more important to keep mental health part of the conversation when talking with your parent or loved one about how they are feeling.


Depression versus dementia

Depression and dementia share many of the same symptoms.  However, there are several symptoms that signal your loved one may be suffering from dementia rather than depression:

  • Memory is slowly fading
  • Easily confused or disoriented
  • Short-term memory is quickly declining
  • The individual doesn’t notice their memory problems

If you notice any of these symptoms, bring them up with your loved one’s doctor. They should be able to diagnose whether they are suffering from depression or dementia.


What are the risk factors of depression in older adults?

Older adults are at a slightly higher risk of depression if they experience any of the following factors:

Previous Trauma
People who have suffered trauma during their life are at a higher risk for developing depression at an older age. Older adults who have recently suffered from a traumatic life event or the loss of a spouse or loved one also have an increased risk.

Previous Medical Conditions
Older adults who have had previous medical conditions are at higher risk for experiencing depression. Stress or worry about a previous illness or health condition reappearing may increase depression symptoms. The stress of dealing with a current medical condition may manifest itself in depression, as well.

Medication
Depression is a side effect of certain medications that older adults may be taking, and it becomes more likely if these medications are combined with other risk factors, such as those explained above.  Medications that can cause or increase the risk of depression include:

  • Heart medications,
  • Anti-psychotic,
  • Anti-anxiety,
  • Anti-cancer, and others.

Other Risk Factors
Other factors that increase the risk of developing depression at an older age include:

  • Being female
  • Having a disability
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Social isolation or loneliness
  • A family history of depression

 

Treatment options
After talking to your parent or loved one, it’s important to consult with their doctor. The next step is finding the best treatment option that will work for them.

 

Medication

Prescription medication is the most common treatment option for depression. Anti-depressants adjust the chemical imbalance in the brain to control mood or stress levels, and can create noticeable, life-changing improvements for many. Older adults who are taking other medications will benefit from consulting with their doctor to ensure they prescribe a safe antidepressant that will not cause complications with the other medications.

 

Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy, sometimes called “talk therapy,” is another common treatment option for people who suffer from depression. It gives people the opportunity to talk through their feelings and learn coping skills they can use moving forward. When paired together, medication and psychotherapy have proven powerful treatment for depression.

Depending on your loved one’s symptoms, other treatment options such support groups and lifestyle changes may directly impact their depression, as well.  
 

Adult daughter smiling hugging older adult mother
Love, support, and open conversations go a long way in recognizing depression in older adults.
 

Remember that older adults who suffer from depression may have trouble accepting their diagnosis. The negative stigma around depression can make some feel weak or flawed. This can make a conversation about how they’re feeling very difficult, but all the more important.

 

“Depression is a real, treatable medical condition, and knowing the symptoms is the perfect place to start in helping your loved one.”


While the conversation may be challenging, prioritizing mental health is an important part of supporting health and happiness throughout the aging process.

For more information and resources about depression in older adults, visit the National Institute on Aging website.
 

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