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Dr. Felicia Wade Headshot

Depression and the Elderly

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Don Cornelius' death uncovers a growing American problem.

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The recent death of TV pioneer Don Cornelius underscores the growing problem of depression and suicide among our elderly population.

Most people don't expect older adults to take their own lives, but this population has the highest suicide rate of any age group. There is an average of one suicide among the elderly every 90 minutes, which is why it's important to know the risk factors to keep an eye out for.

As people age, they are often met with the loss of jobs; their physical health may deteriorate, and the deaths of friends and family members. These circumstances can trigger stress that cause shifts in serotonin levels. Serotonin is also called the "happy" hormone, as it greatly influences an overall sense of well-being. It also helps to regulate moods, temper anxiety, and relieve depression. It is also credited with being a natural sleep aid. It even plays an important role in regulating such things as aggression, appetite, and sexuality.

Since our seniors often don't want to admit that they are having problems with depression or even thoughts of suicide, it is important for caregivers to watch for the warning signs such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, increased prescription drug use or stockpiling medications. Other signs include a rush to complete or revise a will, elaborate good-byes or social withdrawal and statements about hopelessness such as "I don't know if I can go on."

Depression among the elderly can be treated. In addition to counseling, there are medications that can help them lead normal lives.

There are a number of factors that may increase the chance of depression, including the following:

  • Abuse. Past physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can cause depression later in life.
  • Certain medications. For example, some drugs used to treat high blood pressure, such as beta-blockers or reserpine, can increase your risk of depression.
  • Conflict. Depression may result from personal conflicts or disputes with family members or friends.
  • Death or a loss. Sadness or grief from the death or loss of a loved one, though natural, can also increase the risk of depression.
  • Genetics. A family history of depression may increase the risk. It's thought that depression is passed genetically from one generation to the next. The exact way this happens, though, is not known.
  • Major events. Even good events such as starting a new job, graduating, or getting married can lead to depression. So can moving, losing a job or income, getting divorced, or retiring.
  • Other personal problems. Problems such as social isolation due to other mental illnesses or being cast out of a family or social group can lead to depression.
  • Serious illnesses. Sometimes depression co-exists with a major illness or is a reaction to the illness.
  • Substance abuse. Nearly 30% of people with substance abuse problems also have major or clinical depression.

It is important to remember that as people age they are still a vital part of the community and we must check on them and pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues. We must reassure our loved ones that asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness. The life we save may be theirs.