What is depression? Depression is an illness that involves the body, mood and thoughts. It is a very real and serious medical illness often caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. Depression is more than just a case of the blues, disappointment or grieving over the loss of a loved one. Depressed individuals have symptoms which last over a period of time (2 weeks or longer) that interfere with their ability to function like they normally do. Depression is not a normal part of aging.

Symptoms of depression can vary among individuals and often include having a persistent sadness for more than 2 weeks. It can include feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness and inappropriate guilt. Depressive symptoms can also be irritability, loss of energy, frequent crying and difficulty sleeping. Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, making decisions and memory problems. Depression symptoms can also include excessive worries about health or financial problems, social isolation and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

Depression is the most common psychiatric disturbance in the elderly. The prevalence of depression in the elderly can vary from 10 % to 65 %. The incidence of depression increases if there is a chronic illness or the person is in a nursing home.

There are different reasons why elderly adults become depressed. One reason is the effect of stress and loss. Aging is a time of continual change. Many elderly persons are unable to cope with the losses associated with change such as the loss of loved ones, careers, health, financial stability and family responsibilities. As a result, depression develops.

Another reason depression occurs in older adults is genetics. Many individuals have a biological vulnerability to depression and the many changes of aging may cause the condition to emerge.

Biological factors can also play a role in causing depression. It can be triggered by the disturbance in the brain biochemicals that regulate mood and activity.

Lastly, medical conditions can be another cause of depression in the elderly. Medical problems such as nutritional deficiencies, heart disease, certain cancers, Parkinson's disease, stroke, physical disabilities, diabetes and hormonal imbalances are frequently associated with symptoms of depression. Many medications can cause drug interactions leading to mood changes and depressive symptoms as well.

Depression, like other medical conditions, can be treated when properly diagnosed. A thorough physical exam needs to be obtained. A complete history of symptoms and diagnostic tools such as the Geriatric Depression Inventory can be used to obtain further information. A Psychiatrist can evaluate and diagnose a specific type of depression and recommend treatment. Treatment for depression can include therapy or counseling. Counseling by a licensed professional utilizing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and/ or Behavioral Activation Therapy has proven an effective form of treatment. Medication for some elderly patients is also recommended in some cases under the supervision of a physician. A combination of therapy and medication is effective for many patients. Other treatments include improving nutrition, exercise and relaxation therapy.

The key to healing depression is seeking treatment. If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms for longer than 2 weeks, seek help.

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