It is a myth that depression is part of the aging process. It is NOT normal for people of any age to suffer from depression; this includes our elderly population. Major depression (also known as clinical depression and/or unipolar depression) is an illness. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain and can strike people regardless of age, race or economic position. The illness can appear after a triggering event or for no apparent reason.
Watch for standard symptoms of depression, as well as these symptoms common among the elderly suffering from depression:
Complaints of aches and pains (back, stomach, arms, legs, head, chest), fatigue, slowed movements and speech, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, weight increase or decrease, blurred vision, dizziness, heart racing, anxiety.
Inability to concentrate, remember or think straight (sometimes mistaken for dementia). An overall sadness or apathy, withdrawn; unable to find pleasure in anything.
Irritability, mood swings or constant complaining; nothing seems to make the person happy.
Talk of worthlessness, not being needed anymore, excessive and unwarranted guilt.
Frequent doctor visits without relief in symptoms; all tests come out negative.
Alcoholism can mask an underlying depression.
A complete physical examination to rule out other problems is critical before a diagnosis of depression is made. Other physical diseases (Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, thyroid disorders, certain viral infections, strokes, tumors) and certain medications (steroids, hormones, blood pressure and arthritis medications) used to treat those illnesses can mimic the symptoms depression; they can CAUSE a chemical imbalance in the brain. Therefore, a thorough exam is extremely important, as well as, a complete medical history and list of medications currently being taken (both over-the-counter and prescription drugs). Family history of depressive illness should also be noted, due to the genetic component of brain illnesses. Untreated or mistreated depression can result in suicide.
In Addition to the standard warning signs of depression watch for the following behaviors:
Talk about suicide, e.g. “I have nothing left to live for.” “I won’t be a burden on my family much longer.” “I should just kill myself.”
The National Institute of Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control report that as many as 3 out of every 100 people, over 65, suffer from clinical depression and that the suicide rate is twice as high in this population compared to other age groups.
Statements of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness.
Preoccupation with death.
Suddenly happier, calmer.
Loss of interest in things one cares about.
Unusual visiting or calling people one cares about – saying goodbyes.
Making arrangements; setting one’s affairs in order.
Giving things away.
Stockpiling pills or obtaining a weapon.
Refusal to follow doctor-prescribed medications and/or special diet.
Depression is treatable and suicide can be prevented. Nearly 90 percent of people with clinical depression can be treated successfully with medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Some depressions respond among the elderly may respond better to electroconvulsive therapy. ECT is an effective treatment that is used in extremely severe cases of major depression when very rapid improvement is necessary, or when medications cannot be used or have not worked. Improved procedures make this treatment much safer than in previous years.
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
National Alliance on Mental Illness
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