Experts say more than 6.5 million seniors suffer from depression. While the illness is not uncommon at any age, seniors tend to face a variety of special challenges, including retirement, illness, loss of a spouse or significant other, and the prospect of being forced out of their homes due to illness or disability. When left undiagnosed or untreated, the depression can have serious consequences.
Not only can depression lead to health problems, such as anxiety, high blood pressure, stroke, or a heart attack, it can also hinder recovery from illness or injury. In addition, depression can lead to suicide. The rate of suicide among seniors between the ages of 80 to 84 is nearly double that of the overall population.
Therefore, it is important to adopt strategies that can prevent or address depression.
What is depression?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines depression as a common and serious mental illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act.
According to the APA, symptoms vary from mild to severe and may include:
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms must last at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression. Some medical conditions and medications can mimic symptoms of depression, so it is important to rule out medical causes.
Experts offer these tips for combatting depression:
- Find a purpose in life. As people age, their lives change dramatically. Children grow up and move away, friends and loved ones pass on, and the body changes and sometimes, weakens or limits mobility. All of these changes can lead to depression and ultimately, cognitive decline and sometimes, dementia. Finding a purpose in life slows the progress of Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of cognitive degeneration. A new purpose may involve caring for grandchildren or others who require care, or getting involved with a new activity or charity, such as volunteering at a school, an animal shelter, the local library, or church. It is important to set or pursue new goals, whether it’s writing a book or more travel. Finding an activity or person who brings joy into a senior’s life will go a long way toward maintaining well-being.
- Stay socially active. Engaging in individual and social activities has been proven to benefit mental health. However, some activities benefit seniors more than others. For example, studies reveal that seniors who regularly spend time with family members or friends are better equipped to ward off depression. Connecting with others appears to provide the greatest benefit, whether through social group activities or individual relationships.
- Be physically active. Experts say physical activity is key to positive mental health. Most physical activity has benefits. In addition to a regular exercise program, walking a dog, playing sports, walking up stairs instead of taking the elevator, or parking at the furthest corner of a parking lot can improve strength and mobility. Yoga has become a popular alternative for seniors. A recent study found that seniors can improve strength, flexibility, balance, and mental health through almost any type of yoga. Many seniors prefer chair yoga, which involves doing yoga poses while seated. That makes this form of exercise more accessible to those with mobility problems or other disabilities.
- Address regrets. Living with regrets can be detrimental to mental health. One study found that regrets about career, education, and marriage were most common among seniors. However, finances, family conflict, and the problems of other family members caused the most stress. The latter were found to be a significant predictor of depression in seniors. It is important that when possible, seniors seek closure and find peace with those situations. Closure may be achieved through one-on-one discussions, reaching out to family members, writing a letter of apology, starting a journal, and/or seeking counseling to turn an unhealthy relationship into a healthy one. Even making a list of regrets and analyzing how each lead to personal growth can be helpful. Rather than ignore regrets, it is important to address them.
- Embrace a healthy diet. Recent studies have found that the Mediterranean Diet can reduce the risk of late-life depression. The Mediterranean consists of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, whole grains, beans, herbs, nuts, and olive oil. Moderate amounts of dairy and eggs are allowed, but red meat, salt, butter, and sweets are discouraged. However, healthy eating in any form provides mental health benefits.
Seniors should be celebrating life as they enter the golden years, not battling depression. These simple steps are the way to chart a healthy path. However, if depression does occur despite these activities, it is important to seek medical advice.