Ask the Expert: Depression in Seniors

Lynn Northrop, PhD
Dr. Lynn Northrop, PhD, a clinical psychologist affiliated with Sharp HealthCare, answers common questions about depression and seniors.

Is depression normal in older adults?
Depression should never be considered normal in older adults. It's a highly treatable medical condition and there are particular symptoms that we look for when we're diagnosing the condition. In particular, we're looking for a persistent change in mood. Irritable mood is as common as a "blue mood" or sad mood in people who are depressed.



What are some signs or symptoms of depression?
Beyond a persistent change in mood, you may also have a profound loss of interest or pleasure, and that leads to people stopping doing the things that they usually enjoy. You also hear people who are depressed reporting persistent feelings of worthlessness, guilt, hopelessness. Then there are changes in sleep. You might see changes in appetite or weight. And of course, suicidal ideation or thoughts of taking one's own life. What we know is that when we treat the depression, that suicidal ideation goes away, so it makes it all the more important to treat the depression. 

And then another really important symptom of clinical depression to pay attention to is changes in the way your brain works. You might have difficulty concentrating, difficulty paying attention, difficulty making decisions. This is a particularly frightening aspect of depression for older adults because when they experience changes in attention and concentration and perhaps memory, then they're likely to jump to the conclusion that they have dementia.

Why should an older adult get treatment for depression?
The first answer is simply because treatment works. You should also seek treatment of depression because depression has serious implications for other aspects of your physical health. People who are depressed are at a greater risk of heart disease and stroke. They have greater rates of illness overall and even a shorter lifespan.

If a senior thinks that they may be experiencing depression or if you have a loved one who is an older adult who may be experiencing depression then you certainly want to start with your primary care provider. If you're looking for more information about depression and aging or about the treatment of depression and aging, you might want to access a care provider through Sharp HealthCare and you can do that by calling 1-800-82-SHARP.

What if the adult doesn't want to get treatment?
Sometimes myths or stereotypes or stigma can get in the way of people accessing help for depression. And it's just really important to understand that depression is a medical illness just like any other medical illness.

For More Information
To learn more about Sharp's senior health services or to find a Sharp-affiliated physician, search for San Diego doctors or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm. To find general information about senior health, read the Senior Health News archive.