What You Should Know about Depression in Older Adults

June 2024

When people mention growing older, it’s common to talk about what they’ll do to enjoy their retirement years. But there’s one topic that may not come to mind: depression.

As people age, depression is one of the most common mental health disorders. It affects nearly 32% of older adults, according to a report in the Annals of General Psychiatry. But roughly half the time, it goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

Left untreated, depression can get in the way of the things you hope to enjoy — both now and in the future — and also increase your risk of disability and early death.

Why older people are at increased risk of depression

In older people, certain life changes can increase the risk of depression. These include:

  • Moving from your home, such as to a retirement or nursing facility
  • Chronic or ongoing illness or pain
  • Children moving away
  • Spouse or close friends passing away
  • Loss of independence

Certain medical conditions — some of which increase with age — also up your chances of depression. These include:

  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Stroke

For some people, surviving or living with a chronic or terminal illness can take a mental health toll. Others may become more socially isolated — and therefore more prone to depression — if they have a medical condition that makes it harder for them to get out and engage with others. Finally, medications you take to treat these conditions can also contribute to mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

Spotting the warning signs of depression

It’s common for depression to get overlooked among older adults. Because depression can have a ripple effect on your health, it’s important to know the signs and seek help. Everyone can feel down from time to time. You may have depression when you experience several of the following symptoms for at least two weeks:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up too early, or oversleeping
  • Appetite changes or unintended weight changes
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause or that do not get better with treatment
  • Thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide, or suicide attempts

Getting treatment for your depression

Depression is a mental health disorder. Like any physical health problem, depression requires treatment. If you think you may be experiencing depression, talk to your doctor.

To diagnose depression, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and go over your health history. They will also do a complete physical to make sure you don’t have any underlying medical conditions that could be affecting your mental health.

Your doctor can also review your medications to see whether those are contributing to your symptoms. If medications are to blame, they may change your dose or switch medications to those with less chance of affecting your mental health.

To treat your depression, your doctor may recommend psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. There are other options for depression that doesn’t respond to these treatments.

Other ways to manage depression as you age

Certain lifestyle changes can help manage your depression. Follow these tips from the National Institute on Aging:

When to get emergency help

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call or text 988 right away or do a Google search for 988, which will provide you with an option to web chat. In all cases, this will connect you to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Depression doesn’t have to define your golden years. By knowing your risks and taking action, you can regain control over your future, no matter your age.

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