Dr. MJ Bazos MD, Patient Handout
Depression and Older Adults

What is depression?

Sometimes when people feel sad, they say they are "depressed." But depression is more than just feeling sad. It is a medical illness. Someone with "major" depression has most or all of the symptoms listed in the box below nearly every day, all day, for 2 weeks or longer. There is also a "minor" form of depression with less severe symptoms. Both have the same causes and treatment.

What causes depression?

Depression is not a normal part of growing older, but it is common in adults age 65 and over. Retirement, health problems and the loss of loved ones are things that happen to older adults. Feeling sad at these times is normal. But if these feelings persist and keep you from your usual activities, you should talk to your doctor.

Why is depression in older adults hard to recognize?

It can be hard to tell the difference between depression and illnesses such as dementia. Also, older adults may not talk to their doctor about their sad or anxious feelings because they are embarrassed. But depression is nothing to be embarrassed about. It is not a personal weakness. It's a medical illness that can be treated.

How is depression diagnosed?

Sometimes depression is first recognized by friends or family members. If you're having symptoms of depression, be sure to tell your doctor. Don't assume he or she will be able to tell that you are depressed just by looking at you. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, your health and your family's history of health problems. He or she may also give you an exam and do some tests. It is also important to tell your doctor about any medicines that you are taking.

How is depression treated?

Depression can be treated with medicine or counseling, or with both. These treatments are very effective. Medicine may be particularly important for severe depression. Talk to your doctor about the right treatment for you.

What if my doctor prescribes medicine?

Medicines used to treat depression are called antidepressants. They correct the chemical imbalance in your brain that causes depression. These medicines usually work very well, but they may have some side effects. The side effects typically decrease with time. Antidepressants can start to work right away, but it may take 6 to 8 weeks before you see the full benefit. Don't stop taking the medicine without checking with your doctor first.

What about suicide?

Thinking about suicide can be part of depression. Older adults with depression are at risk for suicide. If you have thoughts about hurting yourself, tell your doctor, friends or family right away, or call your local suicide hot line (listed in your phone book). The thoughts of suicide will go away after the depression is treated.