Depression In the Elderly: Causes, Symptoms, And Precautions

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lori Jones, LMHC

Depression can impact anyone at any age. However, at different stages of life, it can be caused by different things and can manifest in different ways. As a result, if you are worried about depression in yourself or someone that you care about, it can be helpful to look within the context of their unique situation.

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Here, we’ll be looking at causes, symptoms of depression, specifically in the elderly. We’ll also look at things that you can do to make elderly depression less likely because depression is not a healthy normal part of growing older.

Common Depression Causes And Symptoms That Impact The Elderly

Before we get into specific causes and symptoms that are more likely to impact the elderly, let’s take a quick moment to talk about depressions and symptoms that are common to depression in general.

Remember, individuals probably won’t exhibit all of the symptoms of depression, and depression can be caused by multiple circumstances working together. It’s always dangerous to look at lists of symptoms and causes and think, “None of these situations exactly describe X, so X must not have depression.”

If you’re uncertain about whether or not you have depression, talk to your primary care provider. Your primary care provider can help you determine whether you have depression and help you to navigate the best treatment method for your case.

Common Causes

The three main causes of depression in older people, as well as in everyone else, are life events, biological circumstances, and combinations of the two.

Your mood is largely the result of chemical messengers in your brain. When something happens that offsets the balance of these chemical messengers, it can lead to or worsen depression.

Of course, your mood is also the result of your life events. Difficult life events like the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or moving to a new place can also cause or worsen depression.

Finally, for most people who develop lasting depression, a combination of the above two events are what does it. Genetic predisposition or changing brain chemistry due to aging and difficult life events may not have been enough to cause depression, but if these two things happen at the same time, it can have a mounting effect.

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Common Symptoms

Depression can manifest differently in different people. You may notice yourself or the individual that you’re worried about “acting different” or “feeling different” without manifesting any of these symptoms. Sometimes it can be best to trust your gut. Even if it isn’t depression, it could be something else worth keeping an eye on.

The most common symptom of depression is “feeling down.” This could be a depressed mood, low energy, or both. We all feel a little down sometimes, but in this context, we’re talking about feelings that prevent the individual from engaging in activities that they once enjoyed, meeting commitments, or even taking care of themselves.

Sometimes this feeling takes the form of feelings of hopelessness. Other times, it can just be a lack of interest, particularly in things that are important or that the person once particularly enjoyed. For these symptoms to contribute to a formal diagnosis of depression, they usually have to be felt for often than not more days than not for at least a few weeks.

Less common but more alarming signs of depression include thoughts of suicide and increase or “obsessive” thought of suicide and death. While some people will try to keep these thoughts to themselves, some people are surprisingly vocal about them.

Causes Unique To The Elderly

The causes of depression that we discussed above can all impact the elderly. However, there are a couple of specific causes that are more likely to impact older people.

Isolation

Humans are social beings, and feeling like you have strong connections to people that you care about is important to your health. So older people, who often live alone or may live with others but away from family as in the case of assisted living communities, may feel isolation contributing to feelings of depression.

Medication

As mentioned above, the balance of brain chemicals can contribute to depression. Some medications can alter this balance leading to depression as an unfortunate side effect. Because older adults are often more medications than younger people, they are more likely to experience these complications.

The good news is that the side effects of most medications and combinations of medications are fairly well understood. So, if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression that you think might be related to your medication, let your primary care provider know right away.

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Life Changes

While younger people may not realize it, advanced age can be a very dynamic time of life. Older adults might be experiencing changes in their careers, they might be moving out of houses and into apartments or senior living communities. They may even be losing friends and family members or facing the prospect of their own delicate health.

Any of these changes could be a challenge for anyone, but in later life, they can be particularly destabilizing, particularly if they happen nearby.

Symptoms Unique To The Elderly

As mentioned above, the symptoms of depression in older adults are by-and-large the same as symptoms of depression in the general population. However, there are a few that might be more noticeable and/or more significant in the elderly.

Withdrawing

Withdrawing can be a vicious circle when it comes to depression, particularly in the elderly. As mentioned above, a lack of interest can be a symptom of depression. This can lead people to stop reaching out socially.

Also, as mentioned above, isolation can be a cause of depression. In this way, depression can actually act to worsen itself through this kind of feedback mechanism.

Imagined And Real Physical Symptoms

Physical symptoms, including difficulty sleeping and unexplained weight loss, can be present in depression at any age. However, they are more likely to be present in older adults with depression.

Some older adults with depression also believe in having adverse physical conditions that they don’t.

A recurring theme throughout this article is that the best thing to do, whether you think that you have depression or not, is to maintain a good relationship with your primary care providers. They can help you to navigate the space between symptoms of depression, symptoms of physical conditions, and everything in between.

Thoughts Of Death Or Suicide

We often think of thoughts of suicide as a symptom of major depression. However, in the elderly, thoughts of death may be a more likely indicator.

Thoughts of suicide are dangerous less because it is a sign of depression, and more because suicide is a thing that a person can actively do. If you are having thoughts of suicide that alarm you, reach out online at www.crisistextline.com or by calling 1-800-273-8255.

Thoughts of death, on the other hand, are more alarming because they are a symptom of depression than because they are dangerous in and of themselves in the same way that thoughts of suicide can be.

Because death is a natural part of life in a way, that suicide is not, it is normal and even healthy for people – particularly older people – to think about death. It becomes a symptom when thoughts of death become obsessive.

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Precautions Against Elder Depression

While some of the factors that can cause depression are a natural part of life, depression is not a normal part of aging. There are things that you can do, as an older adult or as a friend/family member/caregiver to an older adult, to prevent or ease elder depression.

As A Supporter

If you’re a friend, family member, or caregiver worried about depression in an older adult that is close to you, there are some things that you can do to help to prevent or ease depression for that person.

The first is to maintain close relationships with those people, in-person when possible. Talk to them, visit them. Listen to them, but don’t patronize them because you’re worried about them. This can, itself, help to prevent or lessen depression in that individual, but it can also help you to notice symptoms early if they do start to manifest.

The next is to make sure that they have what they need to be happy and healthy. Make sure that they have transportation to things that they want to do, like social events, as well as to things that they need to do like doctor visits.

As An Older Adult

If you’re an older adult worried about depression, there are a number of things that you can do on your own to help you to prevent or lessen depression.

Make sure to keep doing things that you enjoy. If that’s difficult because of health issues or limited mobility, try to find new activities that are easier for you to do.

The first is to maintain social relationships. That means with your family if possible but also with friends.

It also means, once again, to maintain relationships with your healthcare providers. This may not make you feel better at an emotional level, but it can help you to manage the physical conditions that can cause or contribute to depression. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time worrying about your physical health, working with your primary care provider may help you feel better on an emotional level.

Finally, you may want to talk to a mental health specialist. Mental health specialists like counselors and therapists can help you if you do have depression, but they can also help you to navigate through difficult emotions more healthily.

Even if you can afford to talk to a therapist or counselor, whether on your own or through your healthcare provider, getting to them can be difficult, and you may want access to the outside of meetings. While this is difficult to manage with an in-person counselor or therapist, it can be easier with the help of telehealth platforms like BetterHelp.

Moving Forward

Hopefully, this article has helped you to understand how to look at symptoms of depression in older adults. Hopefully, it has also helped you to understand what can do to prevent or lessen depression in yourself or someone you care about.


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