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Depression in the Later Years of Life

Unfortunately, it’s an all too common belief that depression is a more or less natural part of aging. After all, as we get older, we must face an increasing number of problems. Health problems, reduced income, and the death of a partner or loved one are just some of the tragedies and difficulties often faced among those who are older in age. Because of this, it may not be surprising that so many older adults suffer from depression. Medical News Today reports that: “around 7 million American adults aged 65 and older experience some form of depression.” However, even more surprising is that depression among seniors often goes overlooked and untreated.

Depression is Not a “Normal Part” of Aging

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, depression is frequently considered to be a normal part of aging, particularly for older adults. Stephen Bartels, director of the Centers for Health and Aging at Dartmouth College at Hanover, NH, explains to The Washington Post: “The public thinks, ‘Well, if I was losing my ability to walk or losing my vision or hearing or people that I love, that it’s normal to be depressed when you get older,’ and that’s just not true.”

In fact, a Mental Health America survey of adults aged 65 and older revealed that only 38% of seniors believe depression is a health problem, while the remaining 58% believe that it is normal to become depressed in old age. Because of this, the majority of older adults with depression do not seek nor receive treatment for the condition.

It’s worth noting that left untreated, depression can raise the risk of other health conditions and severely impact the quality of life. Certain depressive symptoms can also put individuals at increased risk of suicide. Considering this, it becomes even more alarming to realize that suicide rates in the US are highest among adults aged 75 and older. To put things in perspective, this accounts for 16.3 per 100,000 people when compared with 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people in the general US population.

The Real Causes of Later Life Depression

Stressful and emotional situations experienced later in life can take an enormous toll on one’s mental health. Widowhood is most common in older age, and a third of widows meet the criteria for clinical depression within a month of their spouse’s death. Of this number, 50% of these widows remain clinically depressed a year later. In addition to this, health problems common in older age such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and Parkinson’s, can also increase the risk for depression later in life.

Changes in daily life and environment can also be difficult, like the experience of retirement. Retirement activist Robert Laura explained to Forbes last year: “Work creates self-worth, physical and mental exercise, friendship, and sense of belonging.” The absence of this can lead to the development of depression, as well as the loss of the relationships established within the professional setting, since many adults do not translate their friendships within the workplace to personal ones, thus losing valuable social interaction once they retire.

It is well established that adults who lose social interaction are more likely to develop depression. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, led by Dr. Alan Teo, assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, discovered that older adults who rarely see their family and friends are almost twice as likely to develop depression. This risk remains even when seniors have contact with friends and relatives over the phone or through written communication.

However, as Medical News Today reports: “The risk of depression in later life, however, is not solely dependent on life changes and stressful situations. People who have immediate family members with depression may be at greater risk for developing the condition themselves, and certain medications – such as drugs to treat hypertension – can raise depression risk.” Moreover, if an individual has experienced depression earlier in life they are at increased risk to experience it again, later in life.

Depression is Treatable Even with Aging

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC: “Depression is a true and treatable medical condition, not a normal part of aging.” As such, both the CDC and the National Institute on Aging recommend that older individuals experiencing symptoms of depression seek treatment immediately. They state: “Don’t ignore the warning signs. If left untreated, serious depression may lead to suicide. Listen carefully if someone of any age complains about being depressed or says people don’t care. That person may really be asking for help.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of depression it is important to seek help. When treated, depression can become manageable. However, it should not be assumed to be simply a “natural” part of aging any more than it can be assumed that it is a natural part of life. Preparing for later life changes and maintaining regular in-person contact helps reduce the risk of depression as one gets older, in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and regular exercise. Of the possibility of overcoming depression, the NIA state: “Remember, with treatment, most people will begin to feel better. Expect your mood to improve slowly. Feeling better takes time. But, it can happen.”

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