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Depression In Seniors

Signs and Symptoms

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Updated July 24, 2006

Everyone gets the blues now and then. It's part of life. But when there is little joy or pleasure after visiting with friends or seeing a good movie, there may be a more serious problem. Being depressed for a while, without letup, can change the way a person thinks or feels. Doctors call this "clinical depression".

Being "down in the dumps" over a period of time is not a normal part of growing old. But it is a common problem, and medical help may be needed. For most people, depression can be treated successfully. "Talk" therapies, drugs, or other methods of treatment can ease the pain of depression. There is no reason to suffer.

There are many reasons why depression in older people is often missed or untreated. As a person ages, the signs of depression are much more likely to be dismissed as crankiness or grumpiness. Depression can also be tricky to recognize. Confusion or attention problems caused by depression can sometimes look like Alzheimer's disease or other brain disorders. Mood changes and signs of depression can be caused by medicines older people may take for high blood pressure or heart disease. Depression can happen at the same time as other chronic diseases. It can be hard for a doctor to diagnose depression, but the good news is that people who are depressed can get better with the right treatment.

What to Look For

How do you know when help is needed? After all, older people may have to face the kinds of problems that could cause anyone to feel "depressed." Many older people have to deal with the death of loved ones or friends. Some may have a tough time getting used to retirement. Others are trying to deal with chronic illness. But, after a period of grieving or feeling troubled, most older people do get back to their daily lives. A person who is clinically depressed continues to have trouble coping both mentally and physically and may not feel better for weeks, months, or even years.

Here is a list of the most common signs of depression. If these last for more than 2 weeks, see a doctor.

  • An "empty" feeling, ongoing sadness, and anxiety.
  • Tiredness, lack of energy.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in everyday activities, including sex.
  • Sleep problems, including very early morning waking.
  • Problems with eating and weight (gain or loss).
  • A lot of crying.
  • Aches and pains that just won't go away.
  • A hard time focusing, remembering, or making decisions.
  • Feeling that the future looks grim; feeling guilty, helpless, or worthless.
  • Being irritable.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; a suicide attempt.

Families, friends, and health workers should watch for clues of depression in older people. Sometimes depression can hide behind a smiling face. A depressed person who lives alone may briefly feel better when someone stops by to say hello or during a visit to the doctor. The symptoms may seem to go away. But, when someone is very depressed, the signs come right back.

Don't ignore the warning signs. Serious depression can lead to suicide. Listen carefully if someone complains about being depressed or says people don't care. That person may be telling you he or she needs help.

What Causes Depression

There is no one cause of depression. For some people, one event can bring on the illness. Depression often strikes people who felt fine but who are struggling with a death in the family or a sudden illness. Sometimes differences in brain chemistry can affect mood and cause depression. Sometimes people become depressed for no clear reason.

Depression is sometimes linked to prescription drugs or certain illnesses. Some medications used to treat arthritis, heart problems, high blood pressure, or cancer can cause depression as a side effect. These side effects may not happen right away. Scientists also think some illnesses can cause depression. These include Parkinson's disease, stroke, and hormonal disorders.

Genetics, too, can play a role. Studies show that depression may run in families. Children of depressed parents may be at a higher risk.

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