Eight ways depression gets overlooked in adults.


By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Older people

Elderly couple.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

As people age, the ways they show depression changes.

In mature adults, depression can often be overlooked. As people age, the symptoms of depression change and treatable depression is likely to be dismissed as just a part of the normal process of aging. Younger people commonly express their sadness by crying. Among older adults, depression is more likely to manifest as withdrawal, hopelessness, loss of appetite, and apathy.

Symptoms of depression in mature people are often misinterpreted as aches and pains. Depressed people of all ages are likely to self-medicate emotional problems by using pain relievers. Untreated depression in older adults can lead to their failure to take care of their physical needs. Failure to recognize and treat depression among older adults can make the course of their physical illnesses worse and can result in an increased risk of suicide.

Gerontologists have recognized many ways in which depression in older adults can be overlooked. Here are eight ways depression often goes unnoticed in older adults.

1. Joint and back pain can be symptoms of depression.

Joint and back pain can be symptoms of depression, or they can lead to depression. One study found that the more joints that are in pain, the more likely the person is to have depression. If someone has joint pain or back pain, they need to see a medical doctor and get that pain treated, but they also need to be screened for depression. Pain can be depressing, but depression can make the pain feel worse.

2. Cognitive impairment may be depression rather than aging.

Problems with memory and thinking among older adults may well be the results of depression rather than age-related disorders. A lack of motivation, apathy, is a characteristic feature of depression. Depression leads to confusion about your options and what to do. The longer the depression goes untreated, the higher the risks it will be dismissed as cognitive impairment due to aging.

3. Chest pain can be made worse by depression.

Having a heart condition or chest pain can lead to depression. People with depression are likely to experience those pains more acutely. While you shouldn’t neglect medical treatment for chest pain, an older adult who has chest pain should also be screened for possible depression and treated for depression if it’s present. Having depression leads to poor compliance with the doctor’s instructions, not taking medication as prescribed, and a poor prognosis.

4. Irritability is a common symptom of depression.

Regardless of age, when you don’t feel well, you’re more likely to be irritable and push people away. Among older adults with depression, irritability is such a common symptom; it is almost universal. If you find that you’re becoming more irritable as you age considered getting professional help for possible mental health issues.

Depression may also express itself in other negative emotions. Guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, and loss of hope all feelings that may be associated with depression.

5. Headaches, especially migraines, can be a sign of depression.

One large study found that among those people with migraines, more than half also had depression. This connection can run in either direction. We can’t be sure whether the headaches caused the depression or being depressed increases the chances of headaches and migraines. If headaches have begun to interfere with an older adult’s life, they should be screened for depression and anxiety disorders.

6. Digestive problems can be a sign of depression.

One of the core criteria symptoms for depression is changes in appetite. In younger people with depression, we usually see them either unable to eat or binge eating large amounts of food. In older adults, these changes in appetite may also be reflected in nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or other gastrointestinal upsets.

7. Changes in sleep patterns may be caused by depression.

There are two types of depression recognized, melancholy depression, and atypical depression. In melancholy depression, people can’t sleep or sleep poorly. In atypical depression, the person will be chronically tired and spend an increased amount of time in bed. Some changes in sleep are common across the lifespan. But if an older adult finds they are having trouble sleeping or sleeping a great deal more than usual, that change in sleep may be a result of an underlying depression.

8. Increased use of alcohol and drugs are connected to depression.

In the past, there’s been a tendency to excuse increased alcohol consumption among the elderly. They don’t need to work anymore and why shouldn’t they enjoy themselves? The truth is drinking to intoxication is not likely to be enjoyable. Depressed people tend to drink more, and alcohol is a depressant, making the heavy drinkers more depressed. Drinking to intoxication has been linked to a massive increase in the risk of suicide. For older adults, even a small amount of alcohol can make their physical health worse.

Historically, as people grew older, most of them, gave up their use of drugs. The baby boomer generation has tended to continue their use of drugs well into their retirement years. Escalating drug use can be a symptom of depression in older adults and can lead to creating and exacerbating physical health issues.

If you’re an adult moving to the older adult years, or you have a friend or family member in that age range, don’t overlook the signs of depression. Depression is not something you have to put up with as you age. Severe depression is a crippling disorder which is treatable by both medication and talk therapy. No one should have to suffer from depression in their “golden years.”

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

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