Aging and Depression — Is It Inevitable?
As you get older, there are some things that just can’t be avoided. In fact, getting older in itself is inevitable, no matter how hard you try to turn back the hands of time. But depression doesn’t have to be included in that list of “to be expected” as you age. However, older adults are at an increased risk of experiencing depression.
We spoke with Robert Garza, a licensed professional counselor and clinical manager at Texas Health Huguley, to understand why there’s an increased risk for depression as you age, how to be proactive in preventing it, and what you can do if you think you or a loved one may be struggling.
What is Depression?
Depression is more than just feeling down or “blue,” nor is it the same as the emotions you may feel when grieving the loss of a friend, family member or pet. Someone who is depressed has feelings of sadness or anxiety that last for weeks at a time without resolve.
If you are depressed, you may experience:
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that were once pleasurable
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Overeating or appetite loss
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment
“[Depression is] when sadness is prolonged and making a negative impact on someone’s ability to live, laugh and love to their full potential,” Garza explains. “It is not the person’s inability to ‘accept what is’ but more of a chemical, behavioral, and cognitive perception impacted by depression and anxiety.”
Depression in Older Adults
Depression is a medical condition that can happen to anyone at any age, but why do older adults tend to have an increased risk? Garza says there are many factors that play into it.
“The passing of family members, friends, pets, and a spouse all contribute to an increase in depression for those of older ages,” he explains. “Additionally, medical illness also contributes to depression and anxiety. According to research, about 80% of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and 50% are known to have 2 or more chronic health conditions.
“Learning to manage a variety of symptoms and treatments while maintaining a certain quality of life can become difficult, so depression increases as daily function becomes limited or eliminated due to aging or chronic conditions.”
That may also explain why major depression is reported more commonly by older people who require home health care or who are hospitalized, 13.5% and 11.5% respectively, versus the general population of older adults, which sits between 1% and 5%.
Moreover, symptoms of depression can present differently in older adults, or be disregarded by friends, family or even health care providers as natural reactions to illness or life changes, making it even harder to provide help and treatment.
“An older adult experiencing depression may show less obvious symptoms or be less likely to discuss the symptoms they are experiencing and their feelings,” Garza adds.
In addition to the symptoms listed above, Garza says a few less “obvious” signs that something is wrong may include the person speaking more about death or ‘not wanting to be here,’ and giving away sentimental possessions out of the blue.
“These are just a few signs and symptoms that are more common for depression. If a person is displaying several of these for longer than two weeks, then talk to them about what you see or ask them to speak to their doctor,” he adds. “These could be a sign of depression or other health conditions. Do not ignore the warning signs.”
How to Ask for Help
Depression is a true medical condition, just like diabetes or high blood pressure, and as such, it can be treated and managed. Unfortunately, Garza knows that may not be common knowledge and acknowledges that there may still be a stigma regarding mental health and seeking help.
“It is OK to not be OK,” Garza stresses. “A common myth about mental health, in general, is that a person is either mentally well or not well. Being well is more of a continual experience and may be impacted by emotional problems, changes in relationships or health, and external stressors. The same is true for aging and mental wellness.”
If you find yourself struggling with any of the symptoms listed above, or know someone who may be struggling, be open to conversations. If you’re worried about what to say in response to someone who opens up to you about the way they’ve been feeling lately, know that sometimes just lending an ear may be all someone needs at the time.
“A willingness to listen more and talk less can be very helpful and therapeutic for someone needing help,” Garza explains. “But it is ok to ask questions and provide support when someone is in need.”
Texas Health hospitals and Behavioral Health centers all provide free assessments to anyone looking for guidance on where and what help to get. The beauty of treatment is the abundance of options, especially now as the pandemic has normalized telehealth services that make getting behavioral health treatment even more accessible to more people.
Treatment can look different for everyone, from individual and group therapy to inpatient and outpatient services.
“Group therapy can help normalize what a person is experiencing and help them process those emotions with others who may be experiencing the same symptoms, guided by a master’s level clinician,” Garza explains. “Medication management is also available if needed.”
More severe forms of depression may require a higher level of care, sometimes in conjunction with medication management. That can look like joining intensive outpatient programming, partial hospitalization, and even inpatient therapy where suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts or self-harm are involved.
Remember, it’s never too early to get help, even if that help just looks like carving out an hour of your time once a week to talk about your feelings with someone that can help you increase your coping skills and work through those emotions.
How to Combat Depression as You Age
If there was a solid set of rules on how to live your life to prevent depression, that would be a gamechanger. Unfortunately, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution for combating depression or any other mental health issue. But Garza says there are several ways to lessen the impact depression can have.
Here are some tips:
- Stay in touch with friends and family
- Participate in enjoyable activities
- Be physically active, even if that’s just taking a daily stroll
- Get adequate amounts of sleep
- Consume a healthy diet
- Communicate with a trusted person when you encounter any symptoms that bother you, but especially if they’re related to depression or anxiety
“Depression and loneliness are not a normal part of aging,” Garza adds. “Growing older can have many benefits such as long-lasting relationships, emotional maturity, and a lifetime of positive memories and experiences. Mental illness does not always have a negative impact on a person’s ability to live a fulfilling life.”
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.