Nobody is immune to depression, no matter their circumstances. Depression can happen to anyone at any age, including during the later stages of life. But there are some key differences between depression in younger age groups and depression in the elderly. Statistics show differences in the frequency of depression, for instance, and in the ways older people experience depression.
Depression Rates in Seniors Vary
In all generations and age groups, depression is relatively common, but it’s diagnosed less often in older adults than in the general population. In the 2017 National Institute of Mental Health survey, 4.7% of adults over 50 had a diagnosed episode of major depression. This means that around 5 million adults over 50 have depression. Senior citizens over 65 account for 42% of that total, approximately 2 million adults. In comparison, 7.1% of adults overall—or 17.3 million people—had depression according to the same survey.
Men vs. Women
Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression. This goes for adults of all ages, including seniors. In adults over 25, including senior adults, women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with major depression. However, men are more likely than women to die by suicide, in all adult age groups. The reason for this disparity may be that women are more likely to recognize depression symptoms and more likely to seek help.
The Independence Factor + Wellness
There is a high level of variation of the rates of depression in the elderly. Statistics show that older people who live independently have a much lower rate of depression than those who don’t. Between 1% and 5% of independent seniors have depression. In seniors who need home healthcare, the depression rate is 13.5%. This most likely reflects the fact that loss of independence is a risk factor for depression.
Other studies have shown that certain groups of seniors have a higher risk of depression than others. For instance:
- Seniors receiving outpatient medical care have a depression risk of 5% to 10%
- Medical inpatients have a depression risk of 10% to 12%
- Up to 42% of seniors living in long-term care facilities have depression
Seniors in long-term care have a much higher depression risk, but, in contrast, seniors in community living arrangements have a lower-than-average risk of depression. The difference may be that many of the elderly in long-term care have chronic health problems or have lost a spouse or long-term partner. In contrast, seniors in an active community are more likely to be physically healthy or have help from the community.
Community involvement and activity are likely factors. Studies show that after retirement, seniors who stay active are less likely to become depressed. Senior citizens who are religious or spiritual have a lower risk of depression too. These two factors might be connected: Having hobbies and activities, seeing friends, and being active in the community could help protect against depression.
Seniors who exercise regularly are less likely to become depressed. It’s well known that exercise plays a role in reducing depression risk. A related issue for the elderly may be that those who exercise are less likely to have the kinds of balance and flexibility issues that can lead to accidents and injury. In seniors, accidents can often lead to a loss of mobility, which itself can contribute to depression.
How Depression Is Different for Seniors
Depression doesn’t affect everyone the same. It can even have different effects on a person at different times in their life. Your age and life stage can have a big influence on your risk of getting depression. It can also affect how you experience that depression.
A Higher Risk of Depression
Older adults have a higher risk of depression than adults in other age categories. One reason for this is that people are more likely to have chronic health problems when they get older. According to the CDC, 80% of seniors have at least one chronic medical condition. Half of seniors have two or more chronic health problems. These and other health problems—such as cancer and heart disease—increase a person’s depression risk.
Seniors are also at risk because people are more likely to take multiple kinds of medication as they get older. Some kinds of medication can affect mental health, increasing the risk of depression. These include drugs for:
- Acid reflux
- High cholesterol
- Parkinson’s disease
The risks are cumulative, meaning that the more of these medications a person takes, the higher their risk of depression. In one study, taking 3 such medications lead to a 15% risk of depression.
Misdiagnosis and Lack of Treatment
Another reason why depression is different for seniors is that their symptoms of depression are more likely to be misunderstood.
Healthcare providers often misunderstand depression symptoms, thinking them a natural reaction to getting older. For instance, they might mistake an older adult’s decreased sleep, irritability, fatigue, and memory problems as nothing more than signs of aging. However, these are all also symptoms of depression.
Many seniors themselves think the same thing. They don’t ask for help because they don’t recognize that what they’re experiencing is depression.
Is the Depression Experience Different in Older Adults?
For the most part, the symptoms of depression in older adults are the same as symptoms for adults in younger age categories. However, many illnesses associated with aging can trigger or worsen depression. For older adults, depression is therefore more likely to have a significant impact on physical health.
Seniors with depression visit their doctors more often, and seek emergency healthcare more often. They use more medications, have longer hospital stays, and have higher healthcare expenses.
However, older adults are less likely to recognize they have depression. They’re also less likely to seek help for depression, even if they recognize the symptoms. This may be due to a lack of knowledge of depression and its symptoms. Another reason may be that depression stigma is more common in older adults.
Depression Is Not a Normal Sign of Aging
Although many seniors experience depression, it is not a normal sign of getting older. Depression isn’t a normal part of life at any age. However, as people get older, the kinds of life situations that can trigger depression do tend to happen more often. For instance, older people are more likely to have the kinds of chronic illnesses that can trigger depression. In addition, the diagnosis of an illness such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease can trigger depression.
Illness isn’t the only life situation that may lead to depression. It’s very common for a surviving spouse to become depressed when their partner dies. One-third of widows and widowers meet the criteria for depression in the first four weeks after their partner’s death. Half of those people still meet the criteria for clinical depression a full year later. While the death of a partner or spouse can happen in young adulthood or middle age, people are much more likely to have these experiences as older adults.
Depression Is Painful, but Treatable
Having depression hurts. It’s mentally distressing and can cause painful physical symptoms too. Older people may not recognize the signs of depression, but if you’ve noticed changes in someone you love, helping them figure out what’s going on is an important step in getting treatment.