It is perfectly natural for our emotions to wax and wane with the ups and downs of our lives. The difficulty comes when down feelings do not go away and begin to interfere with daily functioning. When that’s the case, a mood disorder such as depression may be present. Depression and other mental health disorders are responsible for more than 63 million visits to doctors, clinics, and hospital outpatient departments annually in the U.S., plus millions of visits to therapists.
In older adults in particular, depression is a serious and under-recognized problem. The CDC reports that a total of 7 million adults ages 65 or over—or about 17 percent of that age group—are affected by the condition. A significant number of people experience their first episode of depression after age 60. Older adults with depression also have high rates of suicide.
Symptoms of depression in older adults tend to be somewhat different than in younger people and are often attributed to normal aging. Because of this, many older adults and their family members do not recognize these signs and fail to seek treatment.
Many people equate depression with sadness, and while it’s true that a persistent feeling of sadness is a common symptom of clinical depression, many seniors who have depression don’t feel particularly sad. Common symptoms in older adults include irritability, restlessness, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, memory loss or confusion, and chronic pain that persists despite being treated. These complaints can mimic those of other conditions, notably dementia. Further complicating matters, many older adults are reluctant to discuss their feelings and may perceive more of a stigma related to mental health problems. This makes diagnosing depression particularly difficult in this age group.
Our articles explore possible causes of depression, along with treatments ranging from lifestyle changes to medications. Fortunately, proper diagnosis and treatment of mood disorders such as depression lead to a remission of symptoms in about 80 percent of cases.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.