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Is depression the new normal with aging?

December 19, 2019 | UCI Health
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As we age, most of us to tend to become happier and more satisfied with our lives despite having more illness and physical problems, researchers for the National Institutes of Health have found.

Only 1% to 5% of older adults experience depression. That’s far less than among their younger counterparts. Yet there’s a perception that depression is just a normal part of aging.

Is it?

“Absolutely not,” says Dr. Lisa M. Gibbs, director of the UCI Health SeniorHealth Center. “Older adults should not think that depression is normal.”

Depression is a multifactor phenomenon

Plenty can happen in our later years to trigger depression.

Depression is a “multifactor phenomenon,” Gibbs explains, and those factors can multiply as we age.

  • Life events like transitioning from working to retirement, adjusting to changing lifestyles, and accepting losses of friends and family members could lead to depression.
  • Some 80% of older people have a chronic health condition and 50% of them have two or more. Depression is more common in people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke or Parkinson’s disease.
  • Some medications used to treat chronic diseases — from blood pressure medicine to sleeping pills and steroids — may cause or worsen depression. Acute conditions such as urinary tract infections also may create confusion that can resemble depression.
  • Diminished functioning that results from the aging process, itself, may also factor into depression.

Symptoms often mistaken for depression

One of the reasons depression tends to be mistaken for a normal part of aging may be linked to how we think people should behave in their senior years.

“Sometimes older adults are more agitated or melancholy when they’re depressed,” says Gibbs, who is a professor and chief of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at the UCI School of Medicine.

But it may not be depression at all. “It’s more common for older people to become withdrawn, to go out less, to just move less than they had in the past.” That’s not the same thing as depression, she says.

Still, more significant cognitive slowing may be due to depression. If family, friends or caregivers see these symptoms, Gibbs says they should definitely reach out to the older person’s primary care provider for help and guidance.

Considering the whole person

Many of us receive treatment for depression from our primary care providers. The nature of the treatment depends on each individual’s situation.

“We have to understand the whole person,” says Gibbs. “Why is depression developing at this time? What are the recent changes in the person’s life? How do they deal with life? Do they have friends, people to talk to, food and shelter? Do they need a social worker?’

Medical, physical and cognitive conditions must be evaluated as well. If depression is moderate or severe, Gibbs says medication may be necessary. In milder cases, talk therapy might be sufficient.

Reducing stress can help

Stress can cause or exacerbate depression, Gibbs says. “If you’re running from a tiger, you’re not going to be able to concentrate or focus on anything else. When we’re stressed, our reactions are kneejerk rather than planned.”

But there are strategies that can foster good health and a positive frame of mind. Here are some she suggests can help:

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