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Depression Not a Normal Part of Aging

Depression is not a natural part of growing old but rather a medical condition that should be treated aggressively.

Depression in older adults, or in anyone, should not be thought of as normal. Some groups are at higher risk, but the average older person is not depressed any more than a young person. Depression is an illness that affects around 14 of every 100 adults over age 65 in the U.S. Non-Hispanic white men older than 85 have the highest rates of suicide in the U.S.; many visited their doctor within the past month. Factors that may add to an older adult's risk for depression is experiencing a loss of control over changes related to the aging process and losing people that they love.

Missed diagnosis

Depression is often not diagnosed because of stereotypes that family, caregivers or even health care providers have that the elderly are depressed in general. Furthermore, the elderly may mask their depression by packaging the problem in a physical complaint, so diagnosis can take longer.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these are typical signs of depression:

  • Sleep problems, including too little, too much or rising earlier than desired

  • Decreased pleasure and interest in previously enjoyed activities

  • Decreased energy or concentration

  • Appetite increase or decrease

  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

  • Self-destructive and suicidal behavior

Older Americans are disproportionately more likely to die by suicide.

Of every 100,000 people ages 65 and older, 14.3 died by suicide in 2007. This figure is higher than the national average of 11.3 suicides per 100,000 in the general population.

Depression often occurs at the same time as another serious illness, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, NIMH says.

Lingering symptoms

In diagnosing depression, health care providers look for a person who has experienced several symptoms for weeks at a time. The provider will also do a physical exam and rule out other causes for the symptoms, which can include certain medications or medical conditions, NIMH says. Also people who are physically ill and who are not getting better often have an underlying depression. Medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both can be effective in treating depression. Mild cases of depression may be eased by psychotherapy alone. People with moderate to severe depression often are helped with antidepressant medication.

You can help prevent depression by staying active and being connected to other people through family, community activities, senior groups or church.

If you notice signs of depression in yourself, a friend or a family member, don't wait until it becomes severe. Discuss your individual needs with your health care provider, or talk to the person with depression, and encourage him or her to speak to a doctor and seek treatment from a mental health professional.