Depression and Older Adults

Depression is a serious medical illness. Although it is a common problem, it is not a normal part of aging. Some people think it is normal to lose interest in activities and to slow down when they get older. For this reason, they may have depression and not realize it. The good news is that depression can be treated. People who receive treatment can get better and return to their normal activities.

What are the Symptoms of Depression?

Depression in late life has certain symptoms. One symptom is feeling low or down or being more irritable than usual. Another symptom is not being interested in usual, everyday activities. In order to be diagnosed with depression, these symptoms must be bad enough to decrease activities at work, at home, or with family and friends. These symptoms must be present everyday, most of the day, for 2 weeks or more. Some people may have other symptoms of depression. These include:

  • Losing appetite or eating too much
  • Not sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling tired all the time and having no energy
  • Feeling guilty
  • Feeling that you are “not good” or “not worth anything”
  • Not being able to think well or make decisions
  • Thinking a lot about dying or wanting to take your own life

Most people with depression do not have all of these symptoms. But several of them could be present. Older adults often complain about pain and other physical symptoms. They may begin to believe they have an illness that is not being treated correctly. They might get angry that no one is helping them.

Older adults with depression might stay away from family and friends. They may begin to feel bad about themselves and others around them. Many older adults with depression feel a great deal of worry, fear, and anxiety.

How Do I Know If I Am Depressed?

Having depression does not mean that you always look sad or talk about feeling sad. But if you do not find any pleasure in the things that you used to enjoy and you do not look forward to the future, you could be depressed.

Depression in the elderly is more than just feeling down. Having a bad day or feeling sad over something that has gone wrong is normal. Most of the time this feeling will pass on its own. You can help yourself feel better by doing something you enjoy. You should still be able to participate in the activities that are a part of your typical day. But if you have symptoms of depression every day, for more than 2 weeks, you should see your doctor.

Your doctor will probably suggest that you first have a medical exam. You may have other medical problems that need to be treated. If the doctor thinks you may have depression, he or she may suggest that you see a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a doctor who specializes in mental health problems, including depression. A psychiatrist can make sure that you get appropriate treatment.

What Causes Depression?

We do not completely understand the causes of depression. Some types of depression may be caused by changes in the chemical activity in the brain. The stress of a medical illness or the death of a loved one can also cause depression. Medicine is very successful in treating depression because it works on the brain chemicals. In most cases, medicine along with talk therapy works best to treat depression in older adults. If you feel that you might be depressed, it is important to seek help so that treatment can begin as quickly as possible.

UPMC is one of the best centers in the U.S. for research and treatment for depression in late life. More information on this topic can be found on the Late Life Depression website.

Other Useful Resources

Evaluations, treatment, and other behavioral health services are available from the UPMC Behavioral Health Network. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call toll-free 1-877-624-4100.​

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