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Depression in the Elderly

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Depression in the general population is much more prevalent than we as a society care to acknowledge. There is a stigma in the United States that surrounds mental health issues which oftentimes prevents those afflicted by depression from discussing or seeking treatment for their disorder. In addition, many studies show that depression in the elderly is commonly overlooked and under-treated, which is a major disservice to quality of life potential for this population.

Depression is not just an occasional sad feeling. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes extended periods of low energy, sadness, and other negative symptoms. Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, attitude and motivation may be warning signs of depression. Other signs may include physical pains such as lower back pain, loss of interest in activities that were formerly enjoyable, and suicidal thoughts or actions.

Depression operates like a cycle – when a person’s motivation is low, interest in participating in activities goes down causing motivation to decrease further. The cycle feeds itself contributing to deeper depression. The more a person can participate in activities he enjoys, the more motivation is increased and depression is warded off. As individuals age, there is inevitably some slowdown in levels of functioning both socially and physically. These slowdowns could be caused by decreased mobility, vision, self-esteem or confidence, hearing, socialization, retirement, relocation, loss of a significant other, certain medical conditions, time of year and more. There are many components to overall wellness, and when there is an imbalance in any of those components, the likelihood of experiencing depression increases.

A key to intervening in cases of depression is first correcting, reversing or compensating for any losses that may be contributing and then for the individual to continue pursuing activities even though it seems difficult or impossible at the time. Although depression is an issue of chemical imbalance, treatment may include changes in diet and an increase in physical and social activity.

Talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy can be extremely effective in treating and preventing depression. It is possible, through therapy, to retrain the mind to think more positive thoughts and approach life differently. Treatment for depression is often difficult, though, and non-chemical treatment can take considerable commitment. These options may be recommended in conjunction with or as an alternative to chemical treatment such as prescription antidepressants. It is important to note, however, that if a person has suicidal tendencies or cannot adopt proposed physical or social solutions, medication may be necessary. As always, it is important to closely follow the treatment regimen prescribed by the doctor.

Physical fitness and activity are also important components to combating depression. Individuals suffering from depression should see their doctor regularly and comply with his or her orders, get plenty of exercise and eat a well-balanced diet that contains plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. It is also important to engage in regular social activity by getting out of the house and staying connected to friends and family. If a change in mood becomes apparent, it is important to call the doctor immediately and be honest with them about what is being experienced.

Depression is treatable. As a society, we owe it to ourselves and particularly our seniors to recognize the warning signs of depression and help them to seek appropriate treatment when it is necessary.