Depression in the Elderly
Depression in older adults is a serious problem that is often underdiagnosed. This is because it often co-occurs with other serious illnesses and elderly people may be less willing to talk about feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The exact causes of depression in the elderly are unknown, but it may result from factors such as environment and family history. Fortunately, even in its most severe form, depression is highly treatable.
Many people have the mistaken idea that depression in the elderly is normal. On the contrary, most older people feel quite satisfied with their lives despite having more physical ailments. We all know that important life changes happen as we get older. These changes can cause feelings of uneasiness, stress, and sadness. After a period of adjustment, many older adults can regain their emotional balance; however, others do not and may develop depression.
Of the 35 million Americans age 65 and older, about 2 million suffer from full-blown depression. Another 5 million suffer from less severe forms. When left undiagnosed and untreated, depression in the elderly causes needless suffering for the family -- and for the individual who could otherwise live a fruitful life. If left untreated, depression can also lead to suicide.
Why Is Depression in Older Adults Underdiagnosed?
Depression in older adults is often underdiagnosed for a couple of reasons. First, depression often co-occurs with other serious illnesses, such as:
Because many older adults face these illnesses as well as various social and economic difficulties, healthcare providers may mistakenly conclude that depression is a normal consequence of these problems -- an attitude often shared by patients themselves.
Another reason that depression in the elderly may be overlooked is that elderly people may be less willing to talk about feelings of:
- Loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities
- Extremely prolonged grief after a loss.
Combined, these factors contribute to the underdiagnosis and undertreatment of depression in older adults. Depression can and should be treated when it co-occurs with other illnesses, since untreated depression can delay recovery from, or worsen the outcome of, these other illnesses.