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Depression Doesn’t Have To Be Part of Getting Older

The risk for depression tends to increase as people get older, studies show. But there are coping strategies that can help so it doesn’t have to be a part of aging.

As we grow older, we often start to lose friends and family members who provided important social connections. It also becomes harder to forge new connections to replace those that have been lost. Cognitive changes – including memory problems, difficulty concentrating and issues with multitasking – can also take a toll.

The age group most likely to suffer major depression is 45-64, according to an ongoing survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While not a scientific study, it does offer some insights into depression and aging.

Why We Get Depressed

For the 45-64 age group, many factors converge to increase stress on multiple fronts. People who have children watch them leave home and start their own lives. They’re seeing their own parents advance into their elderly years. There is the potential for major career upheaval and worries about retirement.

Depression is seldom the result of one single identifiable cause. Instead, imagine you have a small bucket that can be filled by a range of factors. Depression occurs once that bucket overflows. The factors that contribute to depression can be divided into three categories:

Biological: Researchers still have a lot to learn about biological causes, but depressed people do experience physical changes in their brains. Changes in brain chemistry, the balance of hormones in the body and certain inherited traits may also play a role.

Environmental: Childhood events can contribute to depression later in life. This could include traumatic events, but also includes growing up poor, being homeless or having limited access to education. Having these factors in your past could make it more difficult to bounce back when you encounter difficulties as you get older. The category also includes those stressful later life events, including the loss of jobs and relationships.

Lifestyle: This includes the ways you feed and rest your body. For example, people who use more alcohol and tobacco tend to be more prone to depression. The same is true for people who live a sedentary life or who lack strong social connections – another common problem for older adults.

Depression Symptoms in the Elderly

Depression can be more difficult to diagnose in older adults because the symptoms may be different. General depression symptoms include sadness, angry outbursts, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and insomnia. Among the symptoms in older adults:

  • Difficulty with memory
  • Personality changes
  • Physical aches
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Lack of desire to leave the home or socialize

Depression Coping Strategies

While some changes are normal in the aging process, there is no reason you can’t overcome depression as you grow older. The key is finding new things to do, being socially active and developing new connections to replace those you may have lost. Tactics include:

  • Medications: Certain antidepressants (including some that balance mood-affecting hormones) may be suggested for older adults.
  • Get Connected: People aren’t meant to be isolated. We do better in social groups. Find ways to get out of your home, such as a hobby you can share with current or new friends. Do volunteer work. Join a club or take a class to learn a new skill. And though you may enjoy an active social media life, that comes with its own risks, in terms of what you are exposed to.
  • Be Active: Anything that gets your body up and moving will help to stave off depression. This doesn’t have to be intense exercise. You could do water aerobics, swim, ride a bike or just walk around the neighborhood. Even better, find a friend or family member to join you.
  • Eat Healthy: Cut back on the sugar and highly refined foods. Those comfort foods can make you feel good for a brief while – until your blood sugar falls back to normal. Focus, instead, on fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (olive oil, for example), whole grains and lean protein.
  • Work With a Therapist: Certain therapies can help you deal with some of the natural cognitive changes that may create memory problems. Narrative therapy involves telling the story of your life through writing. It can clarify things you find important and help you realize that you have lived a meaningful life. Reminiscence therapy focuses on taking you back to important stages of your life to reconnect with your past. The therapy relies on storytelling, music, movies, photographs and other tools to make those connections.

By taking these steps, you can remain joyful and engaged as you grow older.

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