Although the risk of experiencing anxiety and depression increases as we age, these mental health conditions often remain undiagnosed. Feeling extremely sad or anxious is not a normal part of the aging process. Treatment is available.
The aging process can take a toll on our bodies – both physical and mental. As we age, we are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, COPD, and arthritis. Our ability to function becomes limited. Plus, we are more likely to experience social hardships, like the loss of a loved one, as well as financial stresses, like rising health care costs.
Many seniors – and even some health care professionals – assume that feelings of sadness and anxiety simply come with the territory of growing older. While it’s true that emotional experiences of anxiousness, grief, and temporary “blue” moods are normal as we age, depression itself is not normal; neither are anxiety disorders. Treatment is available for both of these mental health conditions.
If you are experiencing persistent depression that interferes with your ability to function, or if you worry excessively about routine events and activities, you can get help and it’s easily available. There are many resources available to you so that you don’t have to suffer.
Major depression (also called clinical depression) is a mood state that goes way beyond feeling occasionally sad or blue. It is a serious medical condition. It affects thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and physical health. In the U.S., nearly 15 million adults suffer from major depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In fact, it is estimated that by the year 2020 major depression will be second only to ischemic heart disease in terms of the leading causes of disability in the world.
Our risk for depression increases as we age, especially if we develop medical conditions or lose our ability to function as well as we used to. While depression is not a normal part of the aging process, there is a strong likelihood of it occurring when other physical health conditions are present. For example, nearly a quarter of the 600,000 people who experience a stroke in a given year will experience clinical depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Symptoms of clinical depression can be triggered by other chronic conditions common in later life, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
Unfortunately, symptoms of depression are often overlooked and untreated when they coincide with other medical conditions or life events that routinely occur as we age, such as the loss of loved ones. When left untreated, depression can delay recovery or worsen the outcome of other conditions.
Another reason depression remains under diagnosed is because many seniors are unaware that depression is a medical disorder that can be treated or they don’t feel comfortable confiding to their doctor that they have symptoms of depression.
Consider these statistics, courtesy of Mental Health America:
- Approximately 68 percent of adults aged 65 and over know little or almost nothing about depression.
- Only 38 percent of adults aged 65 and over believe that depression is a “health” problem.
- If suffering from depression, older adults are more likely than any other group to “handle it themselves.” Only 42 percent would seek help from a health professional.
Some symptoms of depression are also signs of other serious conditions. That’s why it’s important to get them checked out by your health care provider. These symptoms include:
*Being very tired and sluggish
Other symptoms of depression include:
*Depressed mood (sadness)
*Eating or sleeping more or less than you used to
*Feeling nervous, restless, irritable, empty
*Excessive guilt and thoughts of suicide
Left untreated, depression can lead to serious impairment in daily functioning and even suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., reports the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Researchers believe that more than one-half of people who die by suicide are experiencing depression. Studies show that many older adults who die by suicide – up to 75 percent – visited a physician within a month before death, reports the National Institute of Mental Health.
Fortunately depression is treatable in most people. In order to get an accurate diagnosis, your health care provider will first rule out other possible medical conditions that present similar symptoms as depression, such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), complications from substance abuse or dependence, infectious diseases, anemia and certain neurological disorders.
Antidepressant medications or psychotherapy, or a combination of the two, are usually effective treatments for late-life depression.
It’s important to be aware that there are several medications for depression, that different medications work for different people, and that it takes four to eight weeks for the medications to work. If one medication doesn’t help, research shows that a different antidepressant might.
Also, older adults experiencing depression for the first time should talk to their health care providers about continuing medication even if their symptoms have disappeared with treatment. Studies show that patients age 70 and older who became symptom-free and continued to take their medication for two more years were 60 percent less likely to relapse than those who discontinued their medications, reports the National Institute of Mental Health.
In psychotherapy, people interact with a specially trained health professional to deal with depression, thoughts of suicide, and other problems. For many older adults, especially those who are in good physical health, combining psychotherapy with antidepressant medication may prove to be most beneficial.
Just like depression, anxiety is another common condition that falls under the mental health umbrella and often goes undiagnosed, yet is highly treatable. Anxiety disorders in general affect about 40 million American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Anxiety disorders include, among others, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worrying over everyday problems. People with generalized anxiety disorder can’t seem to get rid of their concerns. They can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Some physical symptoms include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, having to go to the bathroom frequently, feeling out of breath, and hot flashes.
While it’s normal for older adults to worry more about things like deteriorating health and financial concerns as they age, elderly individuals with generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively about routine events and activities for six months or more.
This constant state of worry and anxiousness may seriously affect a person’s quality of life by causing them to limit their daily activities and have difficulty sleeping. If untreated, generalized anxiety disorder may also lead to depression.
Panic disorder is characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness, or dizziness. People with panic disorder may sometimes go from doctor to doctor for years and visit the emergency room repeatedly before someone correctly diagnoses their condition. This is unfortunate, because panic disorder is one of the most treatable of all the anxiety disorders.
Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is diagnosed when people become overwhelmingly anxious and excessively self-conscious in everyday social situations. People with social phobia have an intense, persistent, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and of doing things that will embarrass them. Physical symptoms include blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking.
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have persistent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and use rituals (compulsions) to control the anxiety these thoughts produce. For example, if a person becomes obsessed with germs or dirt, they may develop a compulsion to wash their hands over and over again. Other common rituals are a need to repeatedly check things, touch things (especially in a particular sequence), or count things.
The goal of treatment is to help a person function well during day-to-day life. A combination of medicine and cognitive-behavioral therapy works best. Medications are an important part of treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps a person understand their behaviors and how to gain control of them. Avoiding caffeine, illicit drugs, and even some cold medicines may help reduce symptoms. A healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, enough rest, and good nutrition can help reduce the impact of anxiety.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Talking with a close friend, family member, or a member of the clergy can also provide support, however it is not a substitute for care from a mental health professional.
Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy.
The first step in treating a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety is to realize that something is wrong and that help is available. It’s never too late to get a correct diagnosis and get the proper treatment needed to enjoy living day to day.