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Article of the Month

 

The Truth About Depression
In Later Life

Written by Lynda Green Alter, LMFT

Do you think that being depressed is a normal part of growing older?

Depression is no more likely to occur in older people than in the young.  Precipitating factors of late life depression include grief and loss, pain, chronic illness, caregiving, loss of independence, and previous history of depression.  Older adults usually minimize their symptoms of depression, describing themselves as "a little blue," "feeling down", or "a bit sad."  Symptoms that usually indicate a possible depressive disorder in the eldery are:
  • Isolation and social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in life and activities once enjoyed
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness about the future
  • Feelings of uselessness
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Feeling restless or irritable
  • Sense of emptiness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Sometimes, older people do not display any of the above symptoms.  Instead, they experience depression through a variety of physical complaints.  This is especially true of people with cultural backgrounds that do not acknowledge unpleasant emotions.  Physical complaints that might be symptoms of depression include:
  • Disruption of the sleep-wake cycle
  • Change in appetitie
  • Fatigue
  • Crying spells
  • Reduced verbal or motor expressiveness
  • Neglecting activities of daily living
  • Misuse of alcohol or medications 
Many cases of depression in older adults are due to changes or losses in late life.  Losses can multiply faster than an elder has time to adjust to.  For some older adults, it often seems like the next set of changes enter their lives before they have completely adjusted to the previous set of changes.  These can include grief over loss of family, friends, pets, changes in health or ability to care for oneself, and the loss of independence due to change in driving status, residence or a disability.  Depression often occurs as a by-product of an older person's inability to manage these rapidly occurring and sometimes unacknowledged losses.  Some studies have suggested that untreated depression may play a role in later life dementia.  Depression cannot be treated without the help of a professional.  Depression will not "go away" on its own.  When treated by a health care professional, 80% - 90% of all people with depression respond to treatment.  Some forms of treatment that have proven to be effective are:
  • Brief solutioned-focused psychotherapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Medications that regulate serotonin, a natural brain chemical needed for healthy brain function
In some cases, it may be possible to prevent depression.  Some easy to follow suggestions are:
  • Increase your serotonin level by eating more complex carbohydrates earlier in the day and protein rich foods later in the day and evening
  • Eat tryptophan rich protein foods like turkey
  • Increase your physical activity.  Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise daily has been shown to help increase serotonin levels
  • Spend more time outdoors.  Exposure to sunlight stimulates serotonin levels
  • Avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates; caffeine and alcoholic beverages that can cause a sharp drop in blood sugar, which can contribute to mood swings
  • Reduce worrying and stress by using a daily relaxation technique such as deep breathing, meditation, prayer, TiChi or yoga
  • Talking things out with an understanding therapist or in a support group before the changes and losses begin to snowball
If you think that you or your loved one may be experiencing symptoms of depression, do not hesitate to consult a licensed mental health professional experienced in diagnosing and treating older adults.  Early diagnosis and treatment of depression can prevent unnecessary suffering and reduce the risk of suicide or other negative health consequences.
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