Signs and Risks of Depression in the Elderly

Signs and Risks of Depression in the Elderly

What are the Signs and Risks of Depression in the Elderly?

Depression can happen at any age, but older adults are at higher risk of developing the condition. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for loved ones and caregivers to recognize the symptoms of depression in older adults. Some of the most common symptoms of depression can be mistaken as a “normal” part of the aging process. But feeling down, withdrawn, and hopeless are not normal, inevitable feelings that come with age. The following article will explore how to recognize the signs of depression in elderly individuals, and how to treat the disorder for this vulnerable segment of the population.

What are the signs of depression in the elderly and are they different than in younger patients?

Young and middle-aged adults who suffer from depression often describe a feeling of pervasive sadness or hopelessness. In the elderly who are depressed, they often do not claim to feel sad. Depression symptoms that are more common in the elderly include feelings of low motivation, energy, and increased physical aches and pains. Unfortunately, increased physical aches and pains are often mistaken as part of the normal aging process. But physical complaints in the elderly are often a predominant sign of depression in this demographic.


Signs and Risks of Depression in the Elderly

Problems with memory, alertness, and concentration are symptoms of depression in young and elderly patients alike. But these symptoms of depression can be mistaken for signs of dementia in elderly patients, making it harder for them to receive a correct diagnosis and get the help they need for their condition.

As people age, they will experience many losses. The older a person is, the more likely they are to have suffered numerous deaths of close family and friends. Also, loss as it relates to grief and the grieving process isn’t strictly related to death. Loss can refer to decreased mobility, mourning over a loss of independence, or the end of a fulfilling career. It is normal for people as they age to grieve for these losses, even if these feelings last a long time.

However, prolonged grief that starts to interfere with a person’s day-to-day functioning is an indication of depression, which is a medical condition and not merely a negative feeling. It can be difficult for loved ones and caregivers of an older adult to distinguish between normal feelings of grief and loss and depression.

Grief involves a range of emotions and people experiencing grief will have good days and bad days. Depressed people feel empty, sad, and hopeless on a continuous basis, and do not experience much emotional range.

There is no time limit for grief and mourning. But if feelings of profound grief continue and the person is unable to find joy in things that would typically make them happy, that can be an indicator of depression.

What causes depression in elderly adults?

There is no singular cause of depression, but a combination of environmental, biochemical, and genetic vulnerabilities can increase a person’s risk of developing the disease. Unfortunately for elderly individuals, they face unique vulnerabilities that increase their chances of experiencing an episode of clinical depression.

  • They have experienced loss and may be mourning for long periods.
  • Increased rates of physical health problems and sickness can increase the risk of depression.
  • Feeling isolated and unable to do as many physical activities as they used to may increase the risk of depression.
  • Struggles with identity issues from retiring or being unable to participate in physical activities can increase the chances of developing depression.
  • Fear and anxiety over health, financial, and end-of-life issues can increase depression rates in elderly persons.

To make matters even more precarious for the elderly, certain health conditions and medications that are commonly prescribed for physical issues related to aging can increase the risk of developing depression. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and autoimmune disorders can cause depression.

Up to 80% of older patients have at least one chronic health condition. Half have two or more chronic health conditions. Rates of depression are higher in older adults who have chronic health conditions such as heart disease, and in those whose physical and mental abilities become limited from age and illness. Blood pressure medication, steroids, beta blockers, and sleep aids can trigger depression symptoms in older adults.

What are the risk factors for depression in older adults?

The statistics for depression rates in the elderly differ widely based on where individuals are located. For elderly persons who are able to remain at home and function independently, rates of depression are as low as 1% to 5%. Elderly individuals who require in-home care have rates of 13.5% and hospitalized elderly patients have rates of 11.5%. The most significant risk factors for depression in the elderly include:

  • Being female
  • Suffering from a chronic, physical health condition
  • Being disabled
  • Poor sleep
  • Being lonely or socially isolated
  • Have a family or personal history of depression
  • Suffer from a cognitive disorder
  • Abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Have experienced a stressful life event such as the death of a spouse, divorce, financial hardship, or are a primary caregiver to a person with a chronic illness.


Depression can happen to a person regardless of their socioeconomic status. But significant stress and worry over financial issues can trigger a depressive episode. Fortunately, there are many different, effective treatment methods for depression for elderly adults. Patients can find relief with a combination of therapy and medications, or TMS therapy.


For many older patients with depression, medications commonly used to treat the disorder can interfere with their other medications. The side effects may also be too severe for them to handle. In these cases, deep brain stimulation techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation can effectively treat depression in older adults.

But patients can only get help if caregivers and loved ones are able to accurately distinguish between depression and normal feelings of the aging process. If you or an elderly loved one are suffering from depression symptoms, please reach out to one of our qualified mental health counselor today to get treatment for your depression.