Depression In Older Adults: Can It Develop After Retirement?
Updated July 20, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW
As people age, their physical and mental health conditions begin to deteriorate. Many older people have gone their entire lives without having to deal with mental or emotional issues. If an older person should develop depression around or after their retirement years for the first time in their life, their loved ones might be thinking they should just snap out of it.
Depression is also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression. It can occur in people of any age, including children. While depression is common in older people, it’s considered a normal part of aging. Depression is a medical condition where the symptoms won’t generally subside without treatment. Regardless of how old you are when you get it, you can’t just shake it off as so many people mistakenly assume that you can.
Recognizing Symptoms of Depression in Older Adults
For the most part, many of the symptoms of depression are the same across ages. In certain aspects, depression in older adults can look different than it does at other ages.
For many people living with depression, their main symptom of depression is sadness. Older adults may have symptoms that are less obvious or that are masked by more noticeable problems. Older people may not admit to being sad and may not want to talk about it. Instead, you may notice that they’re tired all the time during the day; yet, they have trouble sleeping at night. Some older people with depression have a primary symptom of just being grumpy and irritable or complain of pains and headaches.
Depression can cause confusion or attention problems in older adults. Some people may mistake these symptoms as Alzheimer’s disease or another brain disorder. Older people also tend to have greater physical health problems. Such medical conditions as heart disease, stroke, or cancer may contribute to depressive symptoms. Seniors often take medications for various conditions and those drugs may have side effects that contribute to depression.
Certain other factors like dealing with the death of a spouse or loved one or dealing with having to move to a different home or facility might cause depression, and these experiences can be traumatic for older people and compound the problem of existing depression. Some older people tend to adapt better to life’s trials.
Types of Depression in Older People
There are different types of depression and most types can affect older people just as easily as they affect anyone else.
Major depressive disorder is perhaps the most common type of depression in older people. Major depression may occur during their younger years and may reappear during their senior years or it may exist continuously throughout their lifetimes. The symptoms of major depression will interfere with their ability to sleep, eat, and enjoy life.
Persistent depressive disorder is also known as PDD. This is a type of depression that lasts for at least two years. A person living with persistent depressive disorder may have times of major depression along with periods of milder symptoms over those two years.
Psychotic depression is a type of major depressive disorder when some form of psychosis is present along with the depression. Psychosis may be in the form of hallucinations, delusions, or some other type of break with reality. Hallucinations may cause them to hear or see things that don’t exist. Delusions may manifest as having feelings of worthlessness, failure, or having committed some type of sin.
Still another type of depression that can affect older adults is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Seasonal affective disorder typically surfaces when the weather gets cold and gloomy with shorter hours of sunlight. The symptoms are the same as for clinical depression and they may subside when the weather turns warmer.
Changes in a person’s body and brain as they age can also cause depression for the first time later in life. Many older adults have restricted blood flow which is called ischemia. Over time, the condition can worsen and prevent blood from flowing normally to the brain and other organs. This is called vascular depression and it can occur in people that don’t have a family history of depression. Older people with vascular depression may also be at risk of developing heart disease, having a heart attack, or having some other type of vascular illness.
What Causes Depression in Older Adults?
Several things are contributing causes of depression in older adults. Depression is often genetic. People that have other members of the family living with depression may be more susceptible to getting depression after they reach the age of retirement. People that have had depressive episodes during their younger years may find that they are more susceptible to getting depression later in life. Brain chemistry also affects moods and some people have the brain chemistry that predisposes them to depression symptoms. Stress also has a major bearing on depression in older people. Seniors that are stressed may trigger depression if they’ve lost a loved one, are in a difficult relationship, or are stressed because of their illness or living conditions.
Depression and Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is a common disease in older people, and it can cause depression and anxiety along with it. The Parkinson’s Foundation estimates that at least 50% of people that have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease will experience some type of depression during their illness and up to 40% of them will develop an anxiety disorder. The Parkinson’s Foundation reports that mood, depression, and anxiety have the greatest impact on an older person and may contribute even more than the irregularities in motor control.
Older people with Parkinson’s disease may react to a formal diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease with grief. It’s important to consider that normal sadness and grief are different than depression. Sadness and grief are temporary whereas depression is persistent and lasts at least two weeks, and often, longer.
Parkinson’s disease causes changes in the brain’s chemistry and in addition to affecting a person’s motor function, chemical changes in the brain also cause depression along with Parkinson’s disease. Specifically, Parkinson’s disease creates changes in the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are the chemicals that help to regulate mood, motivation, appetite, sleep, and energy. These chemical changes can occur even before an older person begins to experience the changes in their motor ability that are so characteristic of Parkinson’s disease, which means that a person may exhibit symptoms of depression first before they notice signs of Parkinson’s disease.
Depression can magnify the cognitive and motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Researchers believe that in treating depression, it may improve the quality of movement, and thus, the quality of life for older people living with Parkinson’s disease. In treating the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, the co-occurring symptoms of depression are often overlooked and undertreated. It’s important to treat both afflictions at the same time for the best results.
Depression and Its Connection to Eating Disorders in Older Adults
According to this study, 78% of deaths that are attributable to anorexia occur in elderly people. Poor nutrition can exacerbate chronic illnesses in the older population.
Depression in women among seniors may result in eating disorders more often than in elderly men. Eating disorders are a serious matter for older people because their bodies don’t have the resilience that they had during their younger years. While many people tend to associate anorexia with girls and younger women, depression in women in their senior years is also of great concern. Older women are also concerned with their body image. This study of 1,000 women between the ages of 60 and 70 indicates that 80% of them controlled their body weight and 60% weren’t happy with their bodies.
Some older people have difficulty in eating for other reasons. Some have poor dental health or poorly fitting dentures, making it difficult for them to eat and chew their food. In addition, certain medications may contribute to the malabsorption of nutrients or loss of appetite. Older people that experience gastrointestinal issues may not feel as much like eating. In addition to these issues, many older people simply aren’t as active as they were when they were young, and they don’t need as many calories as they use to, so they just don’t feel like they need to eat.
How to Prevent or Lessen the Impact of Depression in Older People
It may be that there isn’t anything that you can do to prevent depression in older people. What you may be successful in is anticipating the types of problems that can lead to depression and take steps to head it off. For example, for older people that need to move away from their family homes, help to prepare them mentally for the move as best you can. Visit them in their new spaces as often as possible so that you can assess how they’re adjusting to their new surroundings.
Encourage them to eat and get regular exercise to keep their bodies as healthy as possible. Address any physical illnesses at the earliest opportunity.
The good news about depression in older adults is that it’s generally treated with cognitive behavior therapy and the success rates are strong. If you or someone that you know lives with depression, you might consider setting up online therapy to get them into a treatment plan to improve their symptoms of depression.