Alarming Facts about Depression and the Elderly

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Depression and the Elderly

While depression among seniors is a major problem in the United States, the symptoms are often overlooked and regarded as a natural part of aging.  This means that many older adults suffer through depression without tips-elderly-depression-holidays-300x225receiving helpful treatments that have been proven to work.  Part of the problem is that people mistakenly attribute the symptoms of depression to other medical ailments, or simply accept that sadness and loneliness are inherent parts of aging.  This problem is so widespread that around 15% of seniors over the age of 65 suffer from depression.  That is more than twice the national average for people over the age of 18.[1]  Another disheartening statistic shows that while older adults make up only 12% of the population, they account for 16% of suicides.[2]   Fortunately, depression and aging do not have to go hand in hand.  The first steps in combating depression among seniors involve understanding the causes of depression and recognizing symptoms.

Why is Depression so Common among Seniors?

Aging often involves a confluence of major life changes, which puts seniors at a greater risk for depression.  Here are some common stressors that affect seniors and contribute to depression:

  • Health Problems:  dealing with illnesses, limited mobility, and declining mental and physical health can be difficult.
  • Isolation:  physical limitations can result in greater isolation.  The loss of friends and family can also contribute to debilitating feelings of loneliness.
  • Lack of Purpose:  while many people look forward to retirement, this transition can often result in feelings of purposelessness
  • Fear:  aging often brings feelings of anxiety about death, money, health and a variety of other issues.
  • Loss of Loved Ones:  seniors often experience intense grief as they lose friends, peers, and spouses to old age [3]
  • Medications:  many medications that are used to treat high blood pressure and other common ailments can actually increase your risk for depression

Symptoms of Depression

Seniors will often exhibit the same signs of depression as younger adults, such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Changes in weight and/or appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained physical pains[4]

Yet older adults may also experience additional symptoms that are particular to their age group:

  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Social withdrawal
  • Demanding behavior
  • Persistent and vague complaints
  • Help seeking[5]

Many of these signs of depression are also common symptoms of diseases that often afflict the elderly such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, etc.  It is understandable then that many seniors and their loved ones dismiss these symptoms as just another sign of aging or a pre-existing condition.  The important thing to remember is that if you are simultaneously suffering from physical, mental, and emotional ailments, you cannot be successfully treated by simply focusing on one area.  Any treatment must involve a comprehensive and balanced approach to all symptoms.[6]

Combatting Depression with Comprehensive Treatment

Since depression in older adults is often the result of major life changes, any treatment must address root causes and not simply focus on minimizing symptoms.  Seeking the help of a therapist, counselor, or support group can help focus on the underlying sources of depression.  The best course of treatment is to seek professional counseling and make simple lifestyle changes that will help boost your mood.


  1. Exercise:  even going for a short walk can release mood boosting endorphins.  If you have limited mobility, Tai Chi is a low impact exercise that can increase balance and coordination.  Some studies have shown that regular exercise has the same effect as anti-depressant medications.
  2. Avoid Isolation:  Whether you choose to volunteer, join new groups, or connect with far-flung family and friends by getting online, it is important to connect with others as much as possible.
  3. Avoid Alcohol:  While most people associate overconsumption with young adults, alcohol abuse it very common among the elderly.  Approximately 17% of people over the age of 60 abuse some type of drug.  Self-medicating with alcohol will not only interfere with other medications, it will increase the severity of your depression.
  4. Find a Purpose:  Picking up a new hobby, getting involved in your community, helping your friends and neighbors are all great ways to help add meaning and purpose to your life and help fight depression.[7]

While antidepressant medication can also be an option for some, these drugs can have undesirable side effects on the elderly, so doctors typically like to avoid prescribing them if at all possible.  Herbal supplements like Omega-3 fatty acids, St. John’s Wort, and Folic acid can provide helpful alternatives that won’t interfere with other medications and cause harmful side effects.[8]


Seniors and their loved ones need to be diligent about acknowledging and treating all physical and emotional problems in order to age gracefully, avoid depression, and prevent suicide.  Don’t make the all too common mistake of dismissing symptoms of depression as simply more signs of aging.  Take a comprehensive and proactive approach to combating depression by seeking help and making lifestyle changes.





[1] “Depression in Older Persons Fact Sheet.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, October 2009.  Web.  28 March 2013.

[2] “Older Adults: Depression and Suicide Facts (Fact Sheet)” National Institute of Mental Health, 27 September 2010.  Web.  28 March 2013.

[3] Smith, Melinda, Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal.  “Depression in Older Adults and the Elderly:  Recognize the Signs and Find Treatment that Works.” Helpguide, November 2012.  Web.  27 March 2013.

[4] “Depression (Major Depression) Symptoms.” Mayo Clinic, 10 August 2012.  Web.  28 March 2013.

[5] “Depression in Older Persons Fact Sheet.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, October 2009.  Web.  28 March 2013.

[6] Borchard, Therese.  “7 Ways to Beat Depression for Seniors.”  The Huffington Post:  Healthy Living, 17 March 2010.  Web. 29 March 2013.

[7] Borchard, Therese.

[8] Smith, Melinda.


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