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Senior standing male by window with serious depression look

Depression Among the Elderly: What Are the Warning Signs?

With millions of seniors suffering from it every year, clinical depression can seem like an inevitable part of aging; however, doctors have found that certain factors, especially those closely related to age, can increase the likelihood of developing clinical depression. These include prescription side effects, hormonal changes, and environmental changes, such as leaving a job or losing a loved one.

Doctors seek to treat this disease as they would any other, but one major roadblock in treating many seniors is the mindset some older Americans have toward mental health issues. Many deny their symptoms, consider depression to be “just a part of life,” or even consider it seeking help to be a weakness.

The danger with this mindset is that untreated clinical depression has been shown to lead to other health issues.

Depression: Misdiagnosis and Ignoring the Symptoms

Many people fail to recognize the signs of depression. Or, when they do note the symptoms, they attribute them to another issue. It can be easy to overlook the signs of depression, especially in seniors.

One common idea is that feelings and symptoms of depression are natural. You may have retired recently, which often leads to feelings of isolation and loss of identity, not to mention the loss of your support network. Symptoms may go misdiagnosed, as they closely resemble those of physical ailments or side effects, such as fatigue and difficulty sleeping.

Often, doctors misdiagnose clinical depression as situational depression, especially if you recently lost a spouse or other loved one, or endured a similar major life change.

Finally, seniors’ tendency to report physical symptoms to their physicians rather than discuss their emotional or psychological issues can increase the likelihood of misdiagnosis.

Depression Risk Factors in Seniors

Certain age-related factors increase the risk of depression. These include:

  • Change in living situation, such as moving to a new home or assisted living community
  • Chronic illness
  • Dementia-related disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease
  • Illness of a loved one
  • Illnesses affecting emotion, memory, and thought, such as thyroid disease
  • Interactions and side effects of medications
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Physical disability
  • Poor diet and malnutrition
  • Substance abuse, such as alcohol or drugs

The Warning Signs of Depression

Depression is not the same in everyone. Some symptoms are physical, while others are emotional. If you experience more than one of the following symptoms for two weeks, you may have depression. Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible to address these concerns.

  • Difficulty concentrating or making a decision (feeling scattered)
  • Drastic changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling empty inside
  • Feeling fatigued and sluggish, decreased energy
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Feeling restless or irritable
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies you used to enjoy
  • Memory issues
  • Persistent feelings of sadness or anxiety
  • Persistent pessimism
  • Sleeping issues: difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or oversleeping
  • Suicidal thoughts, attempting suicide
  • Unexplained physical complaints, such as aches, pains, cramps, headaches, or digestive problems

Diagnosing Depression

Medicare includes a yearly depression assessment from your healthcare provider. If you experience any of the above symptoms for two or more weeks, talk to your doctor or schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.

They will ask a variety of questions and assess your symptoms. Be sure to describe your daily activities and general mood as honestly and directly as possible. Explain how long you’ve experienced these symptoms, and whether you can pinpoint when these symptoms began. Your doctor may also ask about family history, as well as any personal history of depression.

Diagnosing Depression in a Loved One

If you worry that a loved one is suffering with depression, observe their behavior and listen carefully. Do not be afraid to ask questions. When your loved one answers, listen closely and remember that many people feel more comfortable when discussing physical symptoms. You may hear phrases such as, “I just haven’t been sleeping well,” or, “I don’t seem to be hungry lately.”

Reassure your loved one that depression does not have to be a part of their life. You may also want to talk to their physician or other caregiver about your concerns. If they live in an assisted living facility, speak to the staff and ask about their observations, as well.

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