An older adult man wears modern glasses. He sits on a park bench and reads a newspaper on a chilly, sunny winter day.

Feelings of sadness now and then are natural, but if these feelings extend for several weeks to months, they and other symptoms could be a sign of depression. This mental illness can impact how a person feels, acts, and thinks. Clinical depression in seniors is not uncommon, even though it is not a natural aspect of aging — about 7 million people aged 65 and over in the United States have depression. Here, we’ll discuss the types of depression and, concerning older adults, the various causes, symptoms, risk factors, and treatments for depression.

Types of depression in seniors

Based on how long the depression lasts and the characteristics of the illness, the types of depression that seniors may develop fall into four main categories:

  • Major depressive disorder: Major depressive disorder is defined by a substantially sad mood or loss of interest in daily activities that lasts at least two weeks.
  • Persistent depressive disorder: In persistent depressive disorder, the depression phase lasts for at least two years.
  • Bipolar disorder: Bipolar disorder is defined by mood swings from extreme highs to extreme lows.
  • Seasonal affective disorder: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) usually happens during the time of year when there is far less daylight during the waking hours. The decreased amount of light affects a person’s mood due to the change in a person’s daily routine or how the body produces chemicals like melatonin or serotonin.

Symptoms of depression in older people

People with depression feel symptoms for at least two weeks at a time. The following are some behaviors that an older adult with depression may show that family members should be aware of:

  • Sadness or feelings of hopelessness
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Sleeping too much
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss, or weight gain
  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
  • Difficulty concentrating

Risk factors of depression in seniors

Multiple factors can contribute to the development of depression. A genetic predisposition can cause depression in older adults. Other environmental factors can cause depression, even if a person is not predisposed. Some of these causes include 

Isolation

Having strong relationships with people is beneficial to a person’s mental well-being. Older adults who live alone, have decreased interaction with others, or feel emotionally isolated despite being surrounded by others may develop depressive symptoms.

Medication

The brain’s chemicals are responsible for regular brain function. An unbalance of these chemicals can trigger mental illnesses, including depression. Some medications can disturb this balance, resulting in depression as an unwanted side effect. Since many older adults take multiple medications to manage medical conditions, they are exposed to the risk of depression as a side effect. 

Comorbidities

Comorbidity is the simultaneous occurrence of more than one medical condition in a person. Sometimes, comorbidities increase the risk of developing depression. For example, older adults with cardiovascular disease are at increased risk of depression. Anxiety, another common mental health issue among seniors, can contribute to depression as well.

Transitions in life 

Transitions may be difficult for anybody, but they can be more unsettling later in life. Changes in location, the loss of a loved one, or health issues can cause distress, change in mood, and potentially depressive symptoms.

Treatment of depression in seniors

Depression treatments include medication, therapy or counseling, and electroconvulsive therapy. There is no one method of treating depression that works for everyone. Sometimes, a combination of treatments can help a person with depression.

  • Medications: Antidepressants are medications that can help treat depression in older adults. Several chemical compounds are antidepressants, and they work by restoring the brain’s normal chemical balance. Most antidepressants take weeks to months to lessen depression symptoms. 
  • Counseling: Talk therapy can be helpful for people with depression because they can discover behavioral or thought patterns that contribute to depressive symptoms. When a person talks with a counseling professional, they will gain tools to help change these negative patterns and develop more productive ones to lessen depressive symptoms.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy: When older people are unable to take traditional antidepressant medications due to side effects or drug interactions, when depression is severe and interferes with normal daily functions (such as bathing, eating, and grooming), or when the risk of suicide is especially high, electroconvulsive therapy is a safe and effective treatment option. During this type of therapy, mild electrical impulses stimulate the brain.

Conclusion

The stigma associated with mental illness and psychiatric treatment is stronger among older adults, which can discourage them from admitting to themselves that they are depressed. Sometimes, older adults’ depression symptoms are mistaken for “normal” responses to stress, loss, or aging. Educating family members or loved ones about the signs of depression among older people may help with the early detection of the signs and a diagnosis by a health care professional.