Although young people are at high risk for depression perhaps because of the many physical and psychosocial changes they experience during adolescence and the teenage years, at the other end of life similar changes that take place. Older adults are at increased risk for depression, too.
Older people are often dealing with their bodies succumbing to illness and incapacity. They’re transitioning out of the workforce and into a life of retirement, which often deprives them of social interaction. These life changes can mirror the turmoil of adolescence, causing the same psychological effects.
Depression at an Older Age Can Be Deadly
A recent study reported by the University of Kansas in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Gerontology found that American seniors with clinical depression (also known as major depression) have a 43 percent higher chance of contracting serious illnesses such as cancer or heart disease and facing early death as a result.
The study looked at the National Health Interview Study of 1999 and compared that data set against the National Death Index of 2006. This provided the researchers with a data sample of over 11,000 American adults who were 50 years old or older. Clinical depression was assessed among this group using the World Health Organization tool called the Composite International Diagnostic Interview Short-Form. Within that sample, 2,162 people had died from causes other than accident or suicide.
Depression Can Cause Physiological Changes
Examining the data, the researchers discovered that having clinical depression after age 50 was associated with a 2.68 times greater risk of dying from heart disease among individuals with no previous evidence of heart disease. This risk remained constant even after researchers factored out things like smoking, body mass index, activity level, chronic illness, and functional limitations. It’s believed that depression can cause physiological changes in the arteries and blood pressure, which in turn raise the likelihood of cardiovascular disease. In short, being depressed after age 50 is a risk factor in and of itself.
Depression Linked to Suicide and Unhealthy Behaviors in Seniors
Another significant problem among depressed seniors is suicide. White men over age 65 have one of the nation’s highest rates of suicide. Depressed older people also frequently turn to problem behaviors such as heavy drinking or tobacco use in order to cope with their depression. These unhealthy behaviors combined with a greater likelihood of being socially isolated create a significant mortality risk for the aging adult.
Counteracting Depression in Older Age
One way to deal with the problem of depression in older people is for doctors and family members to encourage more physical activity. This may be a difficult habit to start later in life, but the possible ramifications of depression should make it worth the effort. Being significantly depressed as an older person can be deadly, and exercise is a natural mood enhancer. Making sure older adults get enough social interaction is another way to fight depression.
The researchers say that it may be necessary for doctors to screen more often for depression after age 50. Depression screenings aren’t intrusive or time-consuming and usually just require a few well-directed questions during regular exams or office visits for other reasons. It would also be a good idea, they say, for doctors to inform patients before age 50 about healthy coping mechanisms for the life changes to come, when emotional downtime may contribute to depression setting in.