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Depression: It’s not a normal part of aging

An older woman sits on a couch looking sad.

Although depression is common among older adults, it isn’t just part of the aging process. Treatment helps most people reclaim a better quality of life.

Depression is more than just feeling blue. It’s a serious illness that is unfortunately common among seniors.

That doesn’t mean that depression is a normal part of aging. It’s not. It’s also not something to keep quiet about or deal with on your own.

Recognizing when you or a loved one might be depressed and seeking treatment if necessary are crucial and potentially lifesaving steps.

Beyond the blues

No one is a stranger to the occasional and short-lived sad mood. But depression is a chronic problem. And it can have major effects on an older person’s life.

Those effects can include:

Disrupted daily life. Depression can affect eating habits, cause sleepless nights, drain energy and put a halt to life’s usual pleasures.

Complicated health problems. Depression can make other serious illnesses, such as heart disease, worse.

Suicide. Seniors are at risk for suicide, which has been linked to depression. According to Health in Aging, an estimated 75% of older adults who have committed suicide were likely clinically depressed when they did so.

Why some seniors get depressed

Depression has no single cause. Factors such as a personal or family history of depression may increase an older person’s risk for the problem.

Although depression is not a normal part of aging, some potentially difficult life changes and stressful events that can occur as we get older may contribute. These include:

  • The death of a relative or friend.
  • The loss of a job.
  • Social isolation caused by such things as limited mobility or hearing loss.
  • Hospitalization or placement in a nursing facility.
  • Chronic illness, disability or other stresses.

For some people, these events trigger only a temporary reaction. However, in other cases, the change or stressful event can lead to depression.

Signs of depression

Depression’s symptoms last for two or more weeks. They typically involve profound sadness and a lack of interest in usual activities, such as a weekly hair appointment or favorite hobby.

Other symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling fatigued or sluggish.
  • Unexplained changes in weight or appetite.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Restlessness and agitation or slowing of movements.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or excessive guilt.
  • Decreased ability to think or concentrate.
  • Repeated thoughts of death or suicide.
  • Aches or pains, headaches, or cramps or digestive problems without a clear physical cause.
  • Frequent crying.

If you notice any of these symptoms, see your doctor for an evaluation. If you see any of these signs in a loved one, you may want to gently suggest that they discuss their feelings with a doctor.

In some cases, symptoms of depression can actually be due to another problem, such as a thyroid condition or dementia. Sometimes side effects of medications used to treat illnesses—such as cancer or heart disease—can contribute to depression.

Again, it’s important to talk to a doctor about your symptoms so they can rule out the possibility that your symptoms are being caused by a medical condition.

Treatment can help

Fortunately, there are a variety of treatments that can help ease depression—such as talk therapy, antidepressant medications and support groups. Your doctor can help you decide on the treatment plan that will work best for you.

Reviewed 11/7/2023

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