Commentary: Don't ignore signs of depression in seniors

Christina Aguilera performed at the funeral of singer Etta James on Saturday.
Christina Aguilera performed at the funeral of singer Etta James on Saturday. Submitted

Depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans over 65, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Because increased age often brings loss, families and friends might think that sadness and depression are a normal part of aging.

Age-related physical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, thyroid disorders or chronic pain can lead to depression, as can memory or cognitive difficulties.

Side effects of multiple medications taken by the older population can also lead to depression. Older adults might be more at risk for depression due to life changes such as the loss of a spouse or close friend, social isolation, loss of independence or moving out of their longtime home. Some research suggests that almost half of those in nursing care are depressed.

Yet recent research suggests that on average, older adults appear to be happier than their younger counterparts.

The diagnosis of depression is best left to medical professionals because of the varied causes of symptoms. However, family and friends need to stay alert to the signs and encourage their loved one to seek help if symptoms are influencing their quality of life.

Signs of depression include confusion or forgetfulness, eating less, weight loss or gain, neglecting self-care such as not bathing, shaving, or wearing dirty clothes, not taking care of the home as they did in the past, irritability, sleep disruption, fatigue, social withdrawal, and self-medicating through alcohol or drug use. Although any one of these signs might have an explanation other than depression — confusion or forgetfulness might also be a sign of a memory or cognitive disorder — they all can indicate a mental or physical health problem that should be addressed. Taken together, one or more of these signs might also indicate depression.

Because many of the symptoms of depression can be dismissed as part of another illness or as part of normal aging, depression in older adults is often missed as a diagnosis.

Left untreated, depression can worsen physical illness and contribute to cognitive decline. Untreated depression can even put people at risk of suicide.

According to the NIH, the rate of suicide among adults older than 65 is slightly higher than the suicide rate among the general population.

Depressive disorders are not part of normal aging, and they can be treated. A combination of medication and talk therapy is the most common approach.

People with depression should seek help by discussing their symptoms with their primary-care doctor, who may refer them to a psychologist or psychiatrist specializing in treating depression. If the person can't seek help, a family member or friend should accompany him or her to the doctor. For people whose depression is caused by inactivity or social isolation, healthy levels of exercise, social activity and connection with others can also be helpful.