Signs & Symptoms of Late-Life Depression

Understanding Late-Life Depression

Learn About Late-Life Depression

Depression impacts the lives of over 34 million people in the United States each year, making it a very common mental health disorder. While people are starting to recognize and seek treatment for depression during the teen years and adulthood, depression in older adults often goes overlooked and untreated. Many of the stressful events faced by older adults, such as the loss of a long-term partners, complicated grief over repeated deaths, cognitive impairment, the stigma associated with mental illnesses, chronic physical illnesses, and financial worries that accompany advancing age can result in similar symptoms to depression. It’s important to remember that late-onset depression is not considered a normal part of the aging process and should always be treated promptly. Untreated late-onset depression can lead to increased mortality, decreased quality of life, increased healthcare needs, and less ability to perform activities of daily living among older adults.

It’s of absolute importance that family and loved ones become aware of the signs of late-life depression in their loved one and take immediate intervention. Often, caregivers and physicians mistake the symptoms of late-onset depression for dementia as the severity of the depression may be so disabling that an older adult is not able to properly verbalize his or her distress and seek the help he or she needs. However, depression in the elderly is one of the most treatable mental disorders. With prompt attention and proper treatment, late-onset depression can be successfully managed and overcome.


Late-Life Depression Statistics

Late-onset depression is very common among older adults. In fact, over 2 million of the 34 million people in the U.S. facing depression each year are over the age of 65. That means that 6% of the elderly suffer from late-life depression. Unfortunately, many older adults do not know about depression – or are fearful of the stigma of mental illness – and consider it to be a normal part of aging instead of a legitimate concern.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Late-Life Depression

Researchers tend to agree that late-onset depression is not caused by a single root cause, rather it is the delicate interplay of genetic, physical, and environmental risk factors working together to cause this disorder. The most commonly named causes and risk factors for late-life depression include the following:

Genetic: People who have a first-degree relative with depression are at higher risk for developing the disorder themselves, suggesting a definite genetic link to late-onset depression. Older adults who have relatives with depression are at higher risk than those without a similar family history to develop depression.

Physical: Late-onset depression may be triggered by physical illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis. In addition, imbalances of the neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, may lead to the development of late life depression.

Environmental: The stresses associated with older adulthood may trigger late-onset depression in certain older adults.

Risk factors:

  • Delayed, complicated grief
  • Social isolation
  • Disability
  • Financial concerns and struggles
  • Using a number of medications to treat physical problems

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Late-Life Depression

Signs and symptoms of late-life depression tend to vary from the symptoms experienced in depressive symptoms at other ages. The signs and symptoms of late-life depression can be debilitating and even life-threatening. It’s important that if you or someone you love is experiencing the following symptoms for longer than 2 weeks to seek professional help. Symptoms of late-onset depression may include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Withdrawal from once-pleasurable activities
  • Socially withdrawing from enjoyed gatherings and friendships
  • Preferring to be left alone
  • Pacing or fidgeting
  • Extreme tearfulness
  • Decreased ability to care for self

Physical symptoms:

  • Significant change in appetite or weight
  • Psychomotor retardation
  • Physical pains without any discernable reason
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Multiple diffuse symptoms
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Fatigue or reduction in energy
  • Changes in the structure and functioning of the brain

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Decreased ability to think clearly
  • Indecisiveness
  • Increased memory problems
  • Memory loss

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Sadness
  • Increased irritability
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Increased anxiety
  • Inappropriate feelings of guilt


Effects of Late-Life Depression

Older adults may be less prone to seek treatment for psychiatric illnesses such as late-life depression. Left untreated or undiagnosed, people who have late-life depression are at higher risk for developing ongoing effects of the disorder. Chronic, complications of late-life depression may include:

  • Worsening of emotional well-being
  • Worsening of chronic physical complaints
  • Increased morbidity
  • Disability
  • Significant distress
  • Substance abuse
  • Medical complications
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Late-Life Depression and Co-Occurring Disorders

Depression in the elderly often coincides with other mental disorders. Some of the most common disorders that co-occur with late-life depression include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Chronic medical conditions
  • Schizophrenia
  • Cerebrovascular disease
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