Depression In Older Adults: Can It Develop After Retirement?

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 later in life, their friends and family might be asking: Can depression develop after retirement?

Facing New Mental Health Challenges After Retirement?

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 issues. 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 the psychological effects of 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 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 by 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.

Facing New Mental Health Challenges After Retirement?

Depression and Its Connection to Eating Disorders in Older Adults

According to a study published in the journal Nutrients, 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. A 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 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 post-retirement 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.

What is the most common cause of depression in older adults?: The most common cause of depression in seniors is underlying chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, or stroke. Living with these medical conditions for extended periods of time can reduce quality of life, which leads to depression.

How does depression in older adults differ from depression in younger adults?: Although depression can affect anyone of any age, it presents differently in senior adults than it does in younger adults. For example, seniors are less likely to seek treatment for the cognitive-affective symptoms of depression than younger adults. Also, seniors living with depression are more likely to have poor memory and concentration, which can affect their ability to retrieve information as quickly, in addition to sleep disturbances and difficulties with psychomotor function.

How does retirement affect the elderly?: Retirement can be a good thing for the elderly, as it gives them the opportunity to finally relax later on in life after all of that hard work. However, there are more and more studies revealing that retirement can be detrimental to seniors. For example, research conducted by the Institute of Economic Affairs discovered that retirement increased the chances of seniors developing some form of depression by as much as 40%.

What are the psychological problems of the elderly?: The more common psychological problems of the elderly are dementia and depression, as they affect roughly 5% and 7% of seniors, respectively. They can often be confused with each other, as both depression and dementia can lead to mental decline.

What is the safest antidepressant for the elderly?: For a senior living with depression, there are many antidepressants that have been shown to provide relief from major depressive episodes. Before considering any medications, please consult with your doctor or primary care physician to which option is best for you.

The safest antidepressant for seniors is the family of SSRIs, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, mostly because they work well with patients who have cardiovascular disease. Some of the more common side effects include dry mouth, agitation, insomnia, excessive sweating, nausea, and diarrhea.

What age is considered old for a woman?: What is considered old by any standards is dependent on the average life expectancy age. It’s different for different people in various areas of the world. For example, where the life expectancy for a woman in Sierra Leone is 72, then they would be considered old at 57.

In regards to women in the United States, a woman is considered old when they get to the age of 73. However, age is just a number. Characteristic aging is something else, which is the age at which a person starts to show a decline in cognitive ability and physical function. Although a woman may be 73, they could still have a lively sense of humor and a mind as sharp as a tack.

What are the signs of a nervous breakdown?: A nervous breakdown is the name given to a period of severe emotional distress. When this happens, a person is unable to function in their everyday life and may feel as though they’re in immediate danger. It is not a medical term, but it has been used to describe intense episodes of stress, and can be used to refer to acute stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Symptoms of a nervous breakdown can include insomnia, hallucinations, symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, difficulty breathing, suicidal thoughts, paranoia, and flashbacks of a traumatic event.

If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached 24/7 by calling or texting 988 or chatting with a counselor.

Does depression make you age faster?: Living with depression won’t make you physically age faster, but it will hasten the aging effect on your brain. A study conducted by Irina Esterlis at Yale School of Medicine revealed that brains dealing with severe symptoms of depression had lower synaptic density. Synaptic density refers to the amount of synapses within the brain that allows the nerves cells to transmit messages to each other. The fewer synapses, the fewer messages that are being sent around the brain. Synapses do decrease in number as a person ages, but experiencing depression can hasten this process.

Can depression in the elderly mimic dementia?: For a senior person, many of the symptoms of mental disorders, including depression, can look like dementia symptoms instead, such as difficulties with memory and changes in behavior. Seeking professional help from a doctor or another healthcare provider can rule out the confusion between the two so that a correct diagnosis can be achieved.

What are the negative effects of retirement? Most seniors look forward to retirement life, as it gives them the break they need from years of having a job so that they can relax in their old age. Spending time traveling, learning a new skill, taking on hobbies they didn’t have time for before, doing volunteer work, or trying out a new career can give them a sense of purpose and increase life satisfaction. But there is a downside to retirement that not many retirees consider until it confronts them squarely in the face. After a few years—or even just a few months—retirement can lose its appeal for some.

Firstly, retiring can have bad effects on health. Studies have shown that retiring led to a 5-16% increase in difficulty related to mobility-based activities, a 5-6% increase in illness conditions, and a 6-9% decline in mental health. Retiring shouldn’t be an excuse to sit at home all day doing nothing. Researchers suggest that even when you retire, daily contact with friends and family should be maintained, new subjects should be explored, and creativity should be at the top of the list to keep the mind active.

How do you help the elderly cope with retirement?: Whether retirement was a choice or it was forced upon an unfortunate senior, it can be a life-changing moment for those who aren’t prepared for it. A person becomes accustomed to full-time work. On-site work, co-worker interaction, and the sense of purpose that come with employment become the individual’s default settings. So when there is suddenly nothing to do, then they don’t know what to do with themselves. The following tips may help you or a loved one who’s retiring find a healthier way to transition to retirement.

To help new retirees cope with retirement, encourage them to engage in activities they’ve never tried before or interests they haven’t indulged as much as they’d like. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Aging concluded that it can be healthier for the psyche of retirees to think about retirement as a time for doing something new, as opposed to not doing anything. They could start building a new garden in their yard, try volunteer work, lend their knowledge and experience in classrooms, learn a musical instrument, or take up a relaxing sport, physical abilities allowing. If those in their later years self-identify as a guitar player or a gardener instead of a retiree, perhaps elderly living will seem more appealing and enjoyable.

According to the Health and Retirement Study, retirees can see positive health effects and decreased depression after retirement when participating in leisure activities. Encouraging them to be active will also help to stave off feelings of loneliness and lack of self-worth, which can lead to depressing thoughts and anxiety, and may even help with weight loss. Follow up with them to provide encouragement and ensure they’re remaining consistent.

Maintaining important relationships can ensure retirees are staying social and avoiding loneliness. While not everyone who’s in the process of retiring minds solitude, even those who are introverts can benefit from ensuring they remain somewhat social. According to a meta-analysis, a lack of social relationships is associated with decreased cognitive function.

It is also good for retirees to have their finances in order. Talking to a financial planner can help take some of the worry out of retiring for the elderly.

Many retirees even get a part-time job based on their interests, which can provide a sense of purpose. Some retirees choose to work at wine shops or health food stores, while others become medical reviewers or tutors. According to a study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, this gradual transition from full-time employment to part-time work, often called bridge employment, can be easier than transitioning directly into full-time retirement. Retirees can take advantage of relationship dynamics with co-workers and ease into the next stage of their life. When retirement planning, factoring in part-time employment may help mediate the link between retirement and depression.

What happens to your brain when you retire?: What happens to the brain when you retire is dependent on what you plan on doing when you retire. If your future plans are focused on sitting in front of the television all day, then your brain isn’t going to be very happy with that. Studies have shown that cognitive function declines when a person retires, simply because they give themselves nothing to do. 

But the brain can continue to thrive if you remain active during your retirement years. Learning new skills and crafts, engaging in hobbies that you enjoy, and staying physically active will keep both the mind and the body feeling healthy and at their best, no matter what age you are.

What is the most common psychiatric disorder in the elderly?: Roughly 20% of seniors report having a mental health concern; the most common conditions affecting seniors are anxiety, cognitive impairment, depression, and bipolar disorder. Anxiety disorder was prevalent among 15.3% of seniors aged 60 or older, due to both external and internal factors.

External factors that can create anxiety in a senior include chronic illnesses, disability, or the major illness of a spouse, while internal factors include poor self-perception of health, increased loneliness, and reduced physical activity.

If you believe that you are experiencing any of these symptoms, then please text HOME to 741741 now.

What are the most common psychiatric illnesses in the elderly?: There are four main psychiatric illnesses that affect the elderly: depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and eating disorders.

Depression is one of the most pervasive mental health concerns that can be difficult to diagnose in seniors. That is because the more common signs, such as increased sleep and lower energy levels are often misinterpreted as just being part of the aging process.

Anxiety disorders are also misdiagnosed in seniors because they tend to focus on the physical problems they experience and ignore the psychiatric symptoms. Anxiety is most likely to occur in seniors who have general feelings of poor health, experience traumatic events such as the death of a spouse, have chronic physical symptoms, or have physical impairments that limit their daily functioning.

Bipolar disorders are indicated by large mood swings from one extreme to the other. Called manic and depressive episodes, a senior can experience a state of heightened energy and then an immediate plummet into having no energy at all. In seniors especially, this can lead to a sense of confusion, agitation, and loss of judgment and perception.

Eating disorders can affect seniors quite easily, especially if there are underlying psychological issues that go undetected. These include changes in smell and taste, cognitive impairment, depression, or other physical ailments they may be living with.

If you are experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, please call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

What are the four major old age problems?: When it comes to old age, there are four major problems that seniors tend to worry about. Firstly, chronic health conditions plague 92% of seniors such as stroke, cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.

Secondly is cognitive health. Over time, the brain tends to slow down, making it difficult to recall things that were once easy. The most common cognitive health concern that seniors face is dementia.

The third concern is mental well-being. According to WHO, over 15% of adults aged 60 and over live with a mental disorder of some kind. The most common kind is depression, which can sometimes go undiagnosed or untreated.

Lastly is physical injury. The human body can start to decline in its reflexes and stability due to loss of muscle mass and bone density, leading a senior to be more prone to falls.

Other Commonly Asked Questions

Can retiring make you depressed?

Can retirement cause mental health issues?

Is retirement a risk factor for depression?

Why are people sad when retired?

How can retirement affect you emotionally?

What are the five stages of retirement?

What percentage of people get depressed after retirement?

How do I stop being depressed in retirement?

What should you not do in retirement?

Are most retirees happy?

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