Back view of an older lady on road

When we think about aging and health, we commonly associate getting older with physical ailments like arthritis, vision loss, and mobility problems.

A less talked-about health risk that increases with age is depression. In fact, depression is the second most prevalent neuropsychiatric disorder in later life, according to Jordan Karp, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at UPMC.

When not successfully treated, depression in seniors can become a persistent problem, says Dr. Karp. “In older adults, depression can affect thinking and memory, and it seems to increase the risk of conversion to cognitive impairment and possibly dementia,” Dr. Karp says.

Risk Factors for Depression in Older Adults

The path toward depression in seniors is paved with a variety of factors. For some, depression in their youth reoccurs when they’re older, Dr. Karp explains. For others, certain life circumstances can trigger depression, such as the death of a spouse, loss of independence, or loneliness that comes from friends and family moving away.

In some cases, biological factors like disease can contribute to the onset of depression. Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and cardiovascular disease have all been associated with the condition.

“It’s a vicious cycle, because when people become depressed, they don’t always take very good care of their medical problems,” Dr. Karp says. “They may not take their blood pressure medicine or manage their blood sugar as well. And then the vicious cycle makes both the medical problem and the depression worse.”

Treatment Options for Depression in Seniors

Treating depression in older adults depends on the person affected and their interests. Counseling is an effective method for some older adults, says Dr. Karp. The sessions can help older adults verbalize their feelings and work on self-management tools.

Another common form of treatment for depression is medication. Antidepressants can treat symptoms like low mood, lack of pleasure, and sleeping problems as well as improve appetite, reduce feelings of low self-worth, and decrease feelings of suicidal ideation. Medication can also help reduce anxiety.

How Can I Help a Loved One With Depression?

Caregivers, family members, and friends all play a big part in helping a loved one cope with depression. “It’s critical that family members and caregivers are actively engaged and involved in the treatment of the depression of older adults, especially if the older adult also experiences some cognitive impairment,” Dr. Karp stresses.

Caregivers and family members can first talk to their loved one about their feelings and share their understanding and support. Next, they can discuss the importance of treatment and outline the possible options for care.

A good starting point is the person’s primary care physician, notes Dr. Karp. Most older adults receive much of their medical care from their primary care doctor, who can also address depression treatment. If helpful, a caregiver or family member can go with their loved one to the doctor to help them discuss the issue with their medical provider.

Support is key to depression in the elderly. Giving your loved one support, understanding, and acknowledgment can help put them on the road to recovery much faster.

The doctors at UPMC can help you tackle your depression. There’s no need to suffer alone. Contact the University of Pittsburgh’s Late Life Depression Prevention and Treatment Center.