Depression in older adults

Definition

Depression is a mental health condition. It is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration interfere with daily life for weeks or longer.

Depression in older adults is a widespread problem, but it is not a normal part of aging. It is often not recognized or treated.

Causes

In older adults, life changes can increase the risk for depression or make existing depression worse. Some of these changes are:

Depression can also be related to a physical illness, such as:

Overuse of alcohol or certain medicines (such as sleep aids) can make depression worse.

Symptoms

Many of the usual symptoms of depression may be seen. However, depression in older adults may be hard to detect. Common symptoms such as fatigue, appetite loss, and trouble sleeping can be part of the aging process or a physical illness. As a result, early depression may be ignored, or confused with other conditions that are common in older adults.

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. Questions will be asked about medical history and symptoms.

Blood and urine tests may be done to look for a physical illness.

A mental health specialist may be needed to help with diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment

The first steps of treatment are to:

If these steps do not help, medicines to treat depression and talk therapy often help.

Doctors often prescribe lower doses of antidepressants to older people, and increase the dose more slowly than in younger adults.

To better manage depression at home:

Outlook (Prognosis)

Depression often responds to treatment. The outcome is usually better for people who have access to social services, family, and friends who can help them stay active and engaged.

The most worrisome complication of depression is suicide. Men make up most suicides among older adults. Divorced or widowed men are at the highest risk.

Families should pay close attention to older relatives who are depressed and who live alone.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you keep feeling sad, worthless, or hopeless, or if you cry often. Also call if you're having trouble coping with stresses in your life and want to be referred for talk therapy.

Go to the nearest emergency room or call your local emergency number (such as 911) if you are thinking about suicide (taking your own life).

If you are caring for an aging family member and think they may have depression, contact their provider.


Review Date: 7/8/2018
Reviewed By: Ryan James Kimmel, MD, Medical Director of Hospital Psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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