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DEPRESSION IS NOT A NORMAL PART OF AGING

Growing old certainly involves a variety of life stressors that can lead to depression. Some people have trouble making the transition from full time productive careers to retirement. Others have been forced to retire because of chronic health problems or disability. For some, mounting medical bills threaten their future financial stability.  The loss of a loved one, or serious illness in a lifelong friend, or in your spouse, can add tremendous caretaking responsibilities, and also creates much sadness. Lack of mobility, either due to physical illness, or loss of driving privileges, can result in social isolation and loneliness.  All these factors can lead to depression.

However, despite these problems, most older people are satisfied with their lives. Depression is not normal, at any age. This page provides information about depression and older adults, and contains links to other pages with more general information about depression, treatment of depression, and descriptions and treatment of other psychological problems.

What is depression?

Most people think of depression only as sadness and a low mood, but clinical depression is far more than the ordinary "down" moods everyone experiences now and then. Sadness will pass after a visit with a friend or a good movie. Depression is also more than feeling sad or "down." Depression affects our thinking, our emotions, our behavior and our physical health.  You might feel down, or empty. Some people have difficulty remembering, or can't make decisions like they once did. Many leisure activities just don't interest you any more. You have aches and pains that keep coming back, and your physician can't explain it. Depression, with many of these symptoms, that goes on and on and on for weeks and months is called clinical depression.

Depression is also more than the feeling of grief you experience after losing someone you love. Following such a loss, for many people, a depressed mood is a normal reaction to grief. Some people find it helpful to join a mutual support group, such as a widowed-persons group, to talk with others experiencing similar feelings. But, if the grief does not go away within a few months, it may be depression. 

When a depressed mood continues for some time, either following a loss or trauma, or for no apparent reason, you may be suffering from clinical depression--psychological problem that can be treated effectively with counseling or psychotherapy. 

Remember, clinical depression is a whole body disorder. It affects the way you think and the way you feel, both physically and emotionally. It isn't "normal" to feel depressed all the time when you get older. In fact, most older people feel satisfied with their lives. Nonetheless, among people 65 and over, as many as 3 out of 100 experience clinical depression. This is a serious problem, and can even lead to suicide.

But there is good news. Nearly 80 percent of the people with clinical depression can be treated successfully with psychotherapy. Sometimes a combination of psychotherapy and medication works better, especially if you have very disturbed sleep, or can't get yourself out of bed to do anything.  Even the most serious depressions usually respond rapidly to the right treatment. But first, depression has to be recognized.

Types of Clinical Depression

The two more serious types of clinical depression are major depression and bipolar disorder. Some people have dysthymia, which is less intense than major depression, but has persisted for a long time, at least two years. The most common form of depression is reactive depression, which is diagnosed as an Adjustment disorder with depressed mood. This refers to the mild or moderate depression that occurs after a significant loss, or in response to serious life adjustment problems.

Major Depression: Major depression makes it almost impossible to carry on usual activities, sleep, eat, or enjoy life. Pleasure seems a thing of the past. This type of depression can occur once in a lifetime or, it can recur several times. People with a major depression need psychological counseling, and may also need medication to regain control of their lives.

Bipolar Disorder (Manic-depressive Illness): Another type of depression, bipolar disorder--or manic-depressive illness--leads to severe mood swings, from extreme "lows" to excessive "highs." These states of extreme elation and unbounded energy are called mania. This disorder usually starts when people are in their early twenties, but the milder forms may not be properly diagnosed until a person is in their forties or fifties. It is unusual for this type of depression to start for the first time in later life, but if you think your symptoms indicate a possible problem, you should seek help immediately Also, if you have been diagnosed with bipolar depression earlier in your life, it may recur again later in life. This problem requires treatment, whatever the person's age.

Depression Symptom Checklist

Check any symptoms experienced for more than 2 weeks. If you check four or more of the symptoms for depression or mania, a physical and psychological evaluation is recommended. Remember, your physician can evaluate you physically, to determine that the symptoms are not being caused by some other medical problem, but you should also talk to a psychologist, as counseling is also indicated. Even though medication may make you feel better, it is not a cure for depression, it only masks the symptoms. 

Symptoms of Depression:

  • A persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood 
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, including sex
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling "slowed down"
  • Sleep problems (insomnia, oversleeping, early morning waking) 
  • Eating problems (loss of appetite or weight, weight gain) 
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism 
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; a suicide attempt 
  • Irritability
  • Excessive crying
  • Recurring aches and pains that don't respond to medical treatment 

If you have recently experienced a loss, these feelings may be part of a normal grief reaction. But, if the feelings persist beyond three months, with no lifting mood, you probably need psychological treatment. 

Symptoms of Mania

These symptoms may range from moderate to severe. When mania is moderate, only people close to the affected person may be able to spot the symptoms. 

  • Excessively "high" mood 
  • Irritability
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Increased energy
  • Increased talking, moving, and sexual activity
  • Racing thoughts 
  • Disturbed ability to make decisions 
  • Grandiose notions 
  • Being easily distracted 

More Detailed Information About Depression

Seniors: Depression and Bipolar Disorder