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What You Should Know About Depression in Older Adults – June 2024

When people mention growing older, it’s common to talk about what they’ll do to enjoy their retirement years. But there’s one topic that may not come to mind: depression.

As people age, depression is one of the most common mental health disorders. It affects nearly 32% of older adults, according to a report in the Annals of General Psychiatry. But roughly half the time, it goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

Left untreated, depression can get in the way of the things you hope to enjoy — both now and in the future — and also increase your risk of disability and early death.

Why older people are at increased risk of depression

In older people, certain life changes can increase the risk of depression. These include:

  • Moving from your home, such as to a retirement or nursing facility.
  • Chronic illness or pain.
  • Children moving away.
  • Spouse or close friends passing away.
  • Loss of independence.

Certain medical conditions — some of which increase with age — also up your chances of depression due to the mental health toll, social isolation, lack of mobility, or medication side effects. These include cancer, dementia, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, thyroid disorders, and stroke.

Spotting the warning signs of depression

It’s common for depression to get overlooked among older adults. Because depression can have a ripple effect on your health, it’s important to know the warning signs and seek help. You may have depression when you experience several of the following symptoms for at least two weeks:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism.
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness.
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down.”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions.
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up too early, or oversleeping.
  • Appetite changes or unintended weight changes.
  • Restlessness or irritability.
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause or that do not get better with treatment.
  • Thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide, or attempted suicide.

Getting treatment for your depression

Depression is a mental health disorder. Like any physical health problem, depression requires treatment. If you think you may be experiencing depression, talk to your doctor.

To treat your depression, your doctor may recommend psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. There are other options for depression that doesn’t respond to these treatments.

Other ways to manage depression as you age

Certain lifestyle changes can help manage your depression. Follow these tips from the National Institute on Aging:

  • Avoid or limit alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends one drink or less per day for women, and two drinks or less per day for men.
  • Eat a healthful diet. The low-sodium DASH diet may reduce the risk of depression, according to an NIA-funded study.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Maintain social connections with family and friends.
  • Practice good sleep habits. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night on a regular basis.
  • Take your medications as prescribed. Some older adults skip medications or cut them in half to save money. These adjustments may affect how the medicine works in your body and brain.

When to get emergency help

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, have them call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away, or do a Google search for 988, which will provide you with an option to web chat.

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