While we all feel sad, moody or low from time to time, some people experience these feelings intensely, for long periods (weeks, months or even years) and sometimes without any apparent reason. Depression is more than just a low mood – it’s a serious condition that has an impact on both physical and mental health.
One in six women and one in eight men will experience depression at some stage of their lives. The precise rates of depression in older people are not yet known. However, it is thought that between 10 and 15 per cent of people in Australia over the age of 65 experience depression.
Rates of depression among people living in residential aged care facilities are believed to be much higher than in the general population – around 30 per cent.
Depression is often not well recognised or detected in older people. Symptoms such as sadness, sleep and appetite problems or mood changes may be dismissed as a ‘normal’ part of getting older. Symptoms such as poor concentration and memory difficulties may also be confused with other conditions such as dementia.
Older people are at greater risk of developing mental health conditions because of the cumulative effect of numerous risk factors, including chronic illness and isolation.
However, there is no evidence that ageing itself is a risk factor for depression later in life.
Depression can reduce a person’s quality of life and their relationships with friends and family. Severe depression is a risk factor for suicidal thoughts. Among males, the highest suicide rate in the population is among those aged 85 and older.
Depression among older people can be easily missed. Older people may find it difficult to recognise or talk about feeling sad or depressed, and may not reach out for help. Symptoms of depression that would cause concern in a younger person, such as insomnia or social withdrawal, may be disregarded in older people as ‘just getting older’.
Depression can affect memory and concentration, particularly in elderly people. People sometimes assume that problems with memory or concentration are due to age-related changes in thinking, rather than being due to depression. It is, therefore, important to think proactively about the possibility of depression and assess whether it may be present.
In older people, depression may occur for different reasons, but physical illness or personal loss are common triggers.
Factors that can increase an older person’s risk of developing depression include:
- an increase in physical health problems or conditions such as heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease or cancer
- chronic pain
- side effects from medications
- losses such as relationships, independence, work and income, self-worth, mobility and flexibility
- social isolation or loneliness
- significant change in living arrangements such as moving from living independently to a care setting
- admission to hospital
- particular anniversaries and the memories they evoke.
Should more be done to combat depression among older Australians? Do you know of friends or family that have suffered with depression?
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