Geriatric Depression (Depression in the Elderly)

Written by Brian Krans | Published on September 4, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Geriatric Depression

Geriatric depression is a mental and emotional disorder affecting senior citizens. Feelings of sadness and occasional “blue” moods are normal. However, lasting depression is not a typical part of aging.

The elderly are more likely to suffer from subsyndromal depression. This type of depression doesn’t meet the full criteria for major depression. The National Institute for Mental Health estimates that as many as five million elderly people in the U.S. suffer from subsyndromal depression. It can lead to major depression if left untreated.

Depressed elderly are at high risk for suicide. Although senior citizens comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 16 percent of all suicides in 2004 (NIMH, 2007).

Causes of Geriatric Depression

There is no single cause of depression in any age group. Some research indicates that there could be a genetic link to the disease. However, biological, social, and psychological factors all play a role in depression in the elderly.

Research suggests that the following may contribute to depression:

  • low levels of key neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain (serotonin, norepinephrine)
  • a family history of depression
  • traumatic life events, such as abuse or the death of a loved one

Complications associated with aging may contribute to depression specifically in the elderly. These include:

  • limited mobility
  • isolation
  • facing mortality
  • transitioning from work to retirement
  • financial hardships
  • prolonged substance abuse
  • deaths of friends and loved ones
  • widowhood or divorce
  • chronic medical conditions

Symptoms of Geriatric Depression

Symptoms of depression are the same in any age group. Signs and symptoms of depression may include:

  • sadness
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • crying spells
  • apathy
  • restlessness
  • lack of concentration
  • withdrawal
  • sleep problems
  • changes in appetite
  • thoughts of suicide
  • physical aches and pains

Depression is often the cause of physical pain in the elderly that is not explained by other medical conditions (Lapid & Rummans, 2003).

If someone you know is contemplating suicide, get help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Diagnosis of Geriatric Depression

Proper diagnosis and treatment of geriatric depression can be difficult. The elderly’s first point of contact is typically their regular doctor. If they are in an assisted living facility, care workers may notice the symptoms of depression.

A mental health expert will assess your symptoms, mood, behavior, day-to-day activities, and family health history. He or she will ask:

  • how long you’ve been feeling depressed
  • what brought on the depression
  • if you’ve experienced depression in the past

A person must display symptoms of depression for at least two weeks to be diagnosed with the condition.

You can also use this free online geriatric depression scale. It may be helpful in determining whether you or a loved one needs help. However, this should not be used as a replacement for an official diagnosis from a qualified mental health specialist.

Treatment of Geriatric Depression

Just as depression has no single cause, no one treatment works for everyone. Finding the right depression treatment often takes time. Typical treatment involves a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.

Medications used to treat depression include:

  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  • tricyclic antidepressants
  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors
  • bupropion
  • mirtazapine

Lifestyle changes used to treat depression include:

  • increasing physical activity
  • finding a new hobby or interest
  • having regular visits with family and friends
  • getting enough sleep daily
  • eating a well-balanced diet

Numerous therapies can also help an elderly person with depression. Art therapy is a process in which you express your feelings creatively. In psychotherapy, you speak in a private setting with a trained therapist.

Living With Geriatric Depression

Geriatric depression can compound the difficulties associated with aging. It isn’t always easy to diagnose, but proper treatment can greatly increase your quality of life.

Family and loved ones can have a profound effect on an elder’s care. Encourage treatment and offer support to help your loved one live a full, happy life.

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