What Is Depression?

There are times in life when you’ll feel sad. These emotions usually only last a few hours or days. It’s when you feel down or upset for long periods of time, and when those feelings are very strong that these feelings are considered depression.

Depression is a serious mental disorder that can interfere with your daily life. It can make it hard for you to carry out your daily activities and find pleasure in the activities you once enjoyed.

Many people experience depression. In fact, it’s one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH). According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 6 percent of American adults experienced at least one episode of depression each year of the decade beginning in 2005.

Depression usually first occurs in early adulthood, but it’s also common among older adults, according to the NIH. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)estimate that 7 million American adults over the age of 65 experience depression each year. The CDC also reports that adults over the age of 65 made up 16 percent of all suicide deaths in 2004.

Depression is especially common in people with other medical problems. Older adults may have more medical issues, which can increase their risk of depression. Even though depression is common in seniors, it’s not a normal part of getting older. Some older adults may not think they’re depressed because sadness is not their major symptom.

The symptoms of depression vary from person to person. In seniors, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • feeling sadness or “emptiness”
  • feeling hopeless, cranky, nervous, or guilty for no reason
  • sudden lack of enjoyment in favorite pastimes
  • fatigue
  • loss of concentration or memory
  • either insomnia or too much sleep
  • eating too much or eating too little
  • suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • aches and pains
  • headaches
  • abdominal cramps
  • digestive issues

Experts don’t know exactly what causes depression. Several factors may be involved, such as genetics, stress, and brain chemistry.


Having a family member who has experienced depression puts you at a higher risk of developing depression.


Stressful incidents such as a death in the family, a challenging relationship, or problems at work can trigger depression.

Brain Chemistry

The concentration of certain chemicals in the brain may contribute to development of a depressive disorder in some people.

Depression often occurs alongside other medical conditions in older adults. Depression can even worsen these conditions. Some medications for these medical issues can cause side effects that may affect your depression.

Tests and Examinations

Your doctor may run several types of tests and examinations if they suspect you are experiencing depression.

Physical Exam

Your doctor will perform a physical examination and ask you questions about your health. For some people, depression may be connected to an existing medical condition.

Blood Tests

Your doctor may order blood tests to measure different values in your blood to check for existing medical conditions that may be triggering your depression.

Psychological Exam

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, thoughts, emotions, and daily habits. They may ask you to fill out a questionnaire to answer these questions.

Types of Depression

There are several types of depressive disorders. Each type has its own diagnostic criteria.

Major Depressive Disorder

A major depressive disorder is characterized by severely depressed mood or loss of interest in daily activities that interferes with daily life for at least two weeks

Persistent Depressive Disorder

Persistent depressive disorder is a depressed mood lasting for at least two years.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycling mood changes from extreme highs to extreme lows.

There are varying treatments for depression. Most often, people are treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Antidepressant Medications

There are a variety of medications commonly prescribed for depression.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

  • fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • sertraline (Zoloft)
  • escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • paroxetine (Paxil)
  • citalopram (Celexa)
  • venlafaxine (Effexor)
  • duloxetine (Cymbalta)
  • bupropion (Wellbutrin)
  • imimpramine
  • nortiptyline
  • isocarboxazid (Marplan)
  • phenelzine (Nardil)
  • selegiline (Emsam)
  • tranylcypromine (Parnate)

Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

Tricyclics (TCAs)

Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)

Antidepressants can take a few weeks to work, so it’s important to take them as directed even if you can’t feel any improvement right away. These medications can cause side effects including:

  • headache
  • upset stomach
  • insomnia
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • agitation
  • sexual issues

These side effects usually go away over time, but it’s important to talk to your doctor about them right away.


Attending therapy sessions helps many people with depression. Therapy helps by teaching you new ways to think and act. You may also learn ways to change any habits that may be contributing to your depression. Therapy can help you better understand and get through challenging situations that may be triggering or worsening your depression.

Electroconvulsive Therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy is usually used only to treat severe cases of depression. It works by sending mild electric shocks to the brain to change how chemicals in the brain work. It can cause some side effects, including confusion and memory loss. These side effects rarely last for a long time.

Help your loved one get to a doctor if you suspect they have depression. The doctor can diagnose the condition and prescribe treatment. You can also help in the following ways.


Talk with your loved one regularly, and listen carefully. Give advice if they ask. Take what they say seriously. Never ignore a suicide threat or comments about suicide


Offer support. Be encouraging, patient, and understanding.


Be a friend. Regularly invite them to come and spend time with you.


Keep reminding your loved one that, with time and treatment, their depression will lessen.

You should always report suicidal talk to your loved one’s doctor, and, if necessary, take them to a hospital for psychiatric help.

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Sources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration