We all feel sad on occasion, but usually these feelings only last for a few hours or days before things go back to normal. Of course, if you’re experiencing something painful like the loss of a relationship or the death of a loved one, these emotions can persist for much longer.
But if you find yourself feeling down for long periods of time with no clear cause, you may be experiencing depression.
Depression is more than just a case of “the blues”. It’s not a sign of weakness and you can’t just “snap out of” it. It’s a real medical condition, with physical symptoms and treatment, like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Depression can drag you down and persist for weeks or months at a time, disrupting your feelings, thoughts and physical abilities and making it hard to get through your daily activities and enjoy the things you once did.
If you’re feeling depressed, you’re far from alone. Not only is depression one of the most common mental health issues in the U.S., but seniors are at an increased risk for experiencing depression.
That said, and contrary to what many older people think, depression is not a normal part of aging nor is it an inevitability for seniors. With help from your doctor and the support of friends and family, you can tackle depression.
Seniors, depression and chronic conditions
According to the CDC, 15 to 20 percent of adults over age 65 have experienced depression, with 7 million going through a depressive episode each year.
Why do seniors experience depression more often? It’s hard to pin down one reason, but other health issues common in seniors can increase their risk of depression. Seniors may also display symptoms of depression differently than other groups, making it difficult for them to receive the support they need. Depression can also be confused with the side effects of medication or other health conditions.
Not only is depression mentally taxing, it can also derail your efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle. According to the CDC’s study on depression in older adults, Medicare participants who have diabetes or congestive heart failure as well as depression have significantly higher health care costs than those without depression.
Though the connection between depression and a chronic health condition like diabetes isn’t fully known (part of it may be due to brain chemistry), it makes sense:
Not only can managing these conditions be stressful, making depression worse, but depression can also lead to poor lifestyle choices like unhealthy eating. Indeed, one study found that people with both diabetes and depression had higher blood sugar levels than those without depression.
This can also work the other way around, as some studies have even suggested that having diabetes doubles your risk of developing depression.
Symptoms of depression
Depression can take different forms in different people, but for seniors, symptoms of depression typically include some of the following:
- A feeling of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Irritability, anxiety or anger with no clear cause
- No longer enjoying the things you used to, like hobbies or talking to friends and family
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Difficulty sleeping or frequently oversleeping
- Eating too much or too little
- Headaches and other body aches
- Digestive problems
- Suicidal thoughts
How depression is diagnosed and treated
If you suspect you may be experiencing depression, speak to your doctor about your feelings. Your doctor may perform a physical examination and you may be asked to fill out a questionnaire or answer questions about your symptoms, thinking, emotions and daily activities so that they can better understand where you’re coming from.
Depending on your personal situation, your doctor may recommend medication, psychological therapy and lifestyle changes to help you manage your depression. Therapy in particular can help you learn new ways to look at your situation and new habits to get through the challenging parts of life that may be contributing to your depression.
According to Mental Health America, more than 80% of people with depression tackle their condition with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both.
Managing depression with a chronic condition
If you’re like many older adults, you may not see depression as a true health problem, or you may think you’re better off handling it yourself. And while working to change your mindset and adopt healthy habits can certainly improve both your mood and health, depression is very difficult to tackle on your own – even more so when you’re already dealing with a chronic condition.
To give yourself the best chance to overcoming depression and improving your overall health, speak to your doctor about how you’re feeling. They can recommend treatment plans for your chronic condition and for depression, as well as lifestyle changes that can improve both conditions at once.
However, other studies have reported that those in isolation are far more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. It stands to reason that reports would show seniors among the leading demographic for increased mental health disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then why the discrepancy in the statistics?
Tip: Medicare Part B will cover some individual counseling and annual depression screenings, but your deductible needs to be met and a 20% co-insurance applies.
That said, managing your chronic condition can have the added effect of helping with depression. According to Dr. M. Regina Castro of the Mayo Clinic, programs that focus on building better habits and changing behaviors – like MyNurse.ai – can help you control your metabolism, increase fitness levels and manage weight loss and other risk factors of heart disease, while improving your quality of life and sense of well-being.
Dr. Castro also points out that working with a medical professional who supervises your progress and helps coordinate care (like your Wellness Coach) can go a long way toward improving both depression and a chronic condition like diabetes.