Aging and depression: 9 key facts

Depression can develop at any time in life, including as an older adult. The good news is that seniors who are treated for depression are likely to feel better.

At Kaiser Permanente, total health includes mind, body, and spirit —with the understanding that physical health and mental health are closely connected.  Our #FindYourWords project aims to fight the stigma around depression and motivate people talk about it.  This is especially important for older people who grew up in a time when this topic was practically taboo.

To start the conversation, here are some facts about depression that underscore the importance of getting help.

1. Depression is not an inevitable part of aging

When older adults show signs of depression, it’s often dismissed as a normal part of aging. Depression is actually less common among seniors than other age groups.

2. Older adults may be reluctant to report depression

While it’s becoming more socially acceptable to discuss emotions and sadness, people are often reluctant to admit they’re depressed. They may fear being perceived as a burden or “crazy.” It’s important for family members and friends to make clear to their older loved one that getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

“It’s normal to feel sad about events that older adults might experience, like the loss of friends and the loss of independence, or to feel anxious about  other life changes,” says Doug Kalunian, MD, a psychiatrist and Assistant Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Kaiser Permanente Washington. “Anyone with symptoms of depression or anxiety that are interfering with daily life should talk with their doctor. Treatments are available.”

3. Depression can mimic dementia

“Many people think that forgetfulness means that they have dementia. And that might bring on fear or disbelief, so they don’t go to see their doctor to have it confirmed. Minor forgetfulness can be a part of normal aging. It can also be a potentially reversible symptom of anxiety, depression, another medical condition — like a vitamin B12 deficiency or a thyroid issue — or a medication side effect,” says Dr. Kalunian.

It’s important for older adults to see their doctor when they show signs of depression, dementia, or both. Only then can their physician untangle causes from effects and look for ways to treat the underlying issue.

4. Some medications are linked to depression

A study of adults aged 62 and older found that 36 percent take five or more prescription medications. Some drugs can have depressive side effects when taken alone, or in combination with other medications. This is another reason why it’s so important for older adults with symptoms of depression to get care: Sometimes reassessing and adjusting medication is all that’s needed to relieve depression.

5. Depression can cause other health problems

Depression is normally considered more mental than physical, but don’t forget the mind-body connection. Depression weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off illness. It can also increase aches and pains, cause sleep problems, and decrease appetite. What’s more, people who are depressed often don’t take good care of themselves, which can worsen any health problems, or even cause new ones.

6. Some people are at higher risk of depression

Any older adult may develop depression, but some are at higher risk, including:

  • Women
  • Singles both unmarried or widowed
  • Low income 

And seniors may be at higher risk if they experience:

  • A lack of support from family or friends
  • Recent medical problems,  such as heart attack, stroke, broken hip, or chronic pain
  • Problem drinking
  • A family history of depression
  • Living in a long-term care facility or receiving home health care

7. The risk of depression can be lowered

“Exercise, healthy eating, meditation, and socialization are all great for your brain chemistry and can help fight depression,” says Lisa Spatz, MD, a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente Olympia Medical Center.

Research confirms that exercise is among the best ways of combating depression naturally, even if it’s just walking. Harvard Medical School recently published results of research that showed “walking fast for about 35 minutes a day five times a week, or 60 minutes a day three times a week, had a significant influence on mild to moderate depression symptoms.”

Dr. Spatz also suggests vitamin D supplements. Our bodies are dependent on direct sunlight to produce vitamin D, and low levels are linked to late-life depression. But Washington’s long, dark winters can lead to a vitamin D deficiency, a problem that’s only compounded by Western Washington’s cloudy, oceanic climate.

8. Older adults who are depressed don’t always feel sad

While sadness can be a symptom of depression, it’s not always present. Among older adults, depression symptoms may impact the body more than the mind, including:

  • Feeling tired
  • Lack of energy
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increase or decrease in appetite

9. Depression can be effectively treated

Older adults who seek help for depression have an excellent chance of getting better. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Most older adults see an improvement in their symptoms when treated with antidepressant drugs, psychotherapy, or a combination of both.”

Help for Kaiser Permanente Washington Members

By incorporating mental health screenings into primary care visits, Kaiser Permanente is working proactively to make sure members are treated for depression and other mental health issues. Members can also get help for mental health concerns by calling Behavioral Health Services at 1-888-287-2680.

National Suicide Lifeline

If you or someone you love is considering self-harm, talk to someone now at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Volunteers take calls 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.