Everyone feels sad sometimes - it's a natural part of life. But when sadness or other symptoms of depression persist and interfere with your everyday life, you may be suffering from clinical depression.
"Recognizing depression in older people isn't always easy," says Joel E. Streim, M.D., professor in the section on geriatric psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "The depressed person or the person's family may think a change in mood or behavior is the person's natural response to illness or the loss of a loved one, or is simply the way people behave as they age." And in older people, depression may appear as multiple vague physical symptoms accompanied by fatigue and weakness, mimicking other types of illness.
The older person himself may not be able to describe how he is feeling, or may be afraid of being labeled "crazy" or "weak." Older adults today grew up in a time when depression wasn't recognized as a medical illness, says the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP).
Depression in an older adult may be a recurrence of depression from earlier in life, can be brought on by another illness, or just occur by itself.
Because depression isn't a normal part of growing older, it's important to learn the signs of this condition and seek help if you or a loved one could be suffering from it.
Another important sign of depression is giving up regular social activities, the AAGP says. A person with depression also may neglect how he or she looks, or may cook less and eat less.
Sometimes depression occurs for no apparent reason, the AAGP says. But it often can be triggered by a specific event, such as the death of a loved one, a financial setback, deteriorating vision or the inability to live independently.
Chronic illnesses are common causes for depression, and some diseases, such as cancer, thyroid disease, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease, are commonly associated with the condition. Despite depression being linked with these diseases, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren't sure whether depression causes certain cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's.
"That's why it's important for anyone with symptoms of depression to see their primary care doctor, so illnesses that could be causing or contributing to the condition can be identified and treated," says Dr. Streim.
Suicide is more common in older adults than in any other age group, the AAGP says. People older than 65 make up more than 25 percent of the nation's suicides, and white men older than 80 are the largest risk group. Suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts or talk by older adults should always be taken seriously.
Treatment and Help
The first step in treatment for depression is to have the older adult get a complete medical checkup, says the AAGP. That's because the depression may be an indicator of a medical condition or caused by a certain medication.
Most people with depression improve dramatically by taking antidepressants and meeting regularly with a psychiatrist or therapist.
"Depression is a medical illness and is no less treatable than heart disease or diabetes," says Dr. Streim. "Seeking professional help and treatment for someone suffering from depression can restore mental and physical health and improve their quality of life overall."