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How to Spot Senior Depression

Learn the signs of senior depression


Older Man looking out of a window
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If an older family member or friend becomes depressed, how would you know? Do you know the warning signs that would enable you to spot senior depression in your friends or family members?

Signs of Senior Depression are Different than Younger Adults
Senior depression has proved especially devastating among older adults because the disease has been so misunderstood in that population. Now, a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center has identified risk factors associated with senior depression and suicide among older adults, and observed some surprising differences in the way depression manifests in older adults compared to younger adults and children.

Senior Depression Can Be Hard to Spot
These senior depression findings are important because friends, family members, and even care providers might not realize that the signs of senior depression can be different than younger adults, and therefore harder to identify. That lack of understanding is just one of several reasons why older adults may not seek and receive the treatment they need, with sometimes tragic results: the growing problem of geriatric suicide.

“Kids with depression will express feelings of sadness more readily, but older adults may not show or express sadness as much,” said Paul Duberstein, PhD., associate professor of psychiatry and oncology and co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide, in a news release.

Senior Depression Often Mistaken for Other Age-Related Problems
Common signs of senior depression include:

  • a lack of appetite
  • fatigue
  • problems concentrating
These common symptoms are often attributed to the aging process rather than senior depression.

Older adults with depression also tend to stop doing things, according to Duberstein. They might clean less or go to church less frequently. Again, friends and family might not realize the true cause of such changes in behavior.

Older Adults Less Likely to Seek Treatment for Depression
Duberstein has launched a study to determine just how aware people are of the health and behavior changes in the seniors they know. The information is crucial, because seniors are less likely to seek treatment for depression on their own.

The stigma of seeking mental health treatment is a bigger factor among seniors, many of whom grew up at a time when having a mental health problem was often considered synonymous with being “crazy” or incompetent. Transportation problems are another issue for some seniors, along with the lack of mental health services that are near primary care services.

“Family can either help or hinder the process of detecting depression and getting treatment for those experiencing symptoms,” said Duberstein, noting that some people have the misconception that senior depression simply comes with age.

Common Problems Can Increase Suicide Risk Among Older Adults
While researchers had linked certain mental disorders, particularly senior depression, to increases in suicide risk, few definitive studies had pinpointed the stressful factors that contribute to suicide risk.

Duberstein found that poor health, family conflict, or money worries were the problems most likely to increase suicide risk in adults age 50-plus. Duberstein published his findings in the journal Psychological Medicine .

The findings are important for people concerned about how to keep their friends and family members safe, and also for clinicians trying to determine the best ways to reduce senior depression and the risk of suicide among older adults.

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