Why Depression Is Rising Among Older Adults

Tragically, suicide in the older adult population is becoming more common, says board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner, Tiffany Pottkotter, PMHNP-BC.

First, some statistics: Although older adults (age 65 and up) make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than 18 percent of all suicides, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Untreated depression is the most common cause of suicide in older adults, and about one-third of those who are 65 or older experience depression.

“Indeed, one of the fastest-growing populations we are seeing right now is older adults experiencing depression,” Ms. Pottkotter says. “Often, because many people believe depression is a normal part of getting older and/or see mental illness as a stigma, people who need help either don’t seek it or wait too long to get it.”

It’s important to be aware of the signs of depression, Ms. Pottkotter says. “Though different people do often have different symptoms, there are some red flags that are relatively common.”

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad or “empty”
  • Feeling hopeless, irritable, anxious or guilty
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Feeling very tired
  • Not being able to concentrate or remember details
  • Not being able to sleep, or sleeping too much
  • Overeating, or not wanting to eat at all
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems

Of course, if an older person exhibits symptoms of depression, it is important that he or she receive a thorough physical exam to determine if there is a physical reason for the condition, Ms. Pottkotter emphasizes, adding that some conditions can mimic depression, including thyroid disorders and uncontrolled blood sugars. Other causes of depression include limited social support, loss of spouse/friends, loss of independence and perceived loss of purpose. (Learn more about the tie between loneliness and a shortened lifespan.)

Ms. Pottkotter says older adults themselves can be proactive. “Exercising, eating well, socializing as much as possible and even owning pets can help older adults. Yes, medication might be necessary and helpful, but it isn’t the whole answer.”

Taking care of our aging population is very important, Ms. Pottkotter says. “We are fortunate in that many communities offer wonderful services for this population. Helping them become aware of and then use the services is our responsibility as a society. We all need to treat others as we want to be treated.”