The National Institutes of Health reports that of Americans 65 or older, about 5 million suffer from some form of depression. Depression can prevent older adults from enjoying a full life and can complicate other health problems. However, depression does not have to be a normal part of aging. Help is available so the elderly can lead full and productive lives.
Causes of Depression
Elderly adults face unique challenges that may contribute to depression. Loneliness is often a contributing factor. Adult children may have moved far away and may not stay in close contact. Physical illness and disabilities may prevent an elderly person from being in contact with friends and cause a sense of isolation.
Health problems, including illness and chronic pain, can also contribute to depression. Certain medications can contribute to depression as well.
Other factors that may contribute to depression in the elderly are loss of identity, recent retirement, fear of dying; and death of friends, family members or pets.
Recognizing the symptoms of depression in yourself or a loved one is the first step to recovery. There are several warning signs to look for, including sadness, loss of interest in hobbies or friends, fatigue, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, alcohol abuse, isolation and thoughts of suicide.
If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms, you should visit a healthcare provider for an evaluation. The physician will conduct a thorough examination to rule out any physical reasons for the depression, such as thyroid imbalance, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or vitamin deficiency.
There are a variety of treatments for depression. Once the diagnosis has been made, a doctor can help you or your loved one determine a suitable treatment plan .
Milder cases of depression can often be relieved by increasing physical activity and social interactions. Getting out of the house every day for a short walk or visiting with a friend is a good place to start. Physical activity stimulates brain function and can help to lift low moods.
Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy” is another method used for treatment. Talking to a qualified professional about the causes of the depression helps the person understand his or her feelings and perhaps identify possible reasons for the low moods. Geriatric psychologists specialize in treating depression in the elderly.
Medication is often used in combination with psychotherapy to treat depression. The newer psychiatric drugs generally have few side effects. Many psychiatrists believe that using a combination of medication and psychotherapy helps relieve the symptoms of depression faster than using psychotherapy or a medication alone.
For severe depression, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be used. This involves sending a carefully monitored electric current through the brain. ECT can sometimes improve brain function, and some elderly patients have reported that their depression was less severe after treatment. Muscle relaxants and general anesthesia are administered during the procedure to protect the patient from any possible side effects. ECT therapy was once considered controversial, but it is now considered a safe procedure for the treatment of depression when all other forms of therapy have failed.