Mental Health Article:

Depression among older adults can be serious and treatable

by Edward Wagner, M.D.
University of Washington Health Promotion Research Center

Everyone gets down in the dumps now and then, but being seriously depressed for an extended period of time - more than two weeks - can have devastating consequences for older adults. By recognizing signs of depression, seniors can seek the help they need to overcome the condition and live longer and happier lives.

While not a normal part of aging, depression may be related to various factors commonly associated with getting older, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of independence and function. Having symptoms of depression does not mean a person is weak or has a flawed character. Depression is a medical condition that affects many people and can be significantly improved with treatment.

The Healthy Aging Partnership - a coalition of 28 not-for-profit and public health and senior service organizations in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties - encourages older adults to be on the lookout for signs of depression in themselves as well as in their spouses, relatives and friends. Here are some ways to recognize serious depression and take action.

Depression is more than just "feeling blue." While symptoms will vary in severity and duration among different people, experiencing several of the following symptoms for two weeks or longer may signal clinical depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood
  • Sleeping too little, waking up very early in the morning, or sleeping too much
  • Reduced appetite and/or weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, including social interactions, hobbies and sex
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that don't respond to treatment (such as headaches, chronic pain or digestive disorders)
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

Depressive symptoms occur in approximately 20 percent of people over 65 years of age. People who have low incomes and are socially isolated or physically ill are at a higher risk. Older adults are often more likely to think depression will just go away by itself or that they can handle it alone. Depression among seniors often goes undetected because patients do not report their symptoms, and when they do, they are often misinterpreted as symptoms of a different physical illness.

Chronic depression can take the pleasure out of daily life and aggravate other medical conditions. When overlooked it can lead to suicide. The good news is that clinical depression can be treated successfully in more than 80 percent of all cases, and health insurance and/or Medicare cover most treatments.

If you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, don't ignore it. Call the Healthy Aging Partnership's free and confidential information and assistance line at 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464) to get more information on ways to treat the condition.

You can also call 1-844-348-KING for answers to any of your questions about living a healthier life as an older adult.

HAP and 1-844-348-KING are generously supported by HAP partner agencies, Puget Sound Energy and the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation.