Signs of Depression in Older Adults

Old woman with depression

Would you be able to identify clinical depression in yourself? Could you identify it with a loved one? 

You may think you can. After all, the telltale signs seem pretty hard to miss: ongoing sadness or hopelessness, loss of interest in normal activities, fatigue, sleep problems. 

Does Depression Get Worse with Age?

In older adults, however, the warning signs of depression are less clear cut. Your mom may lose interest in activities and develop poor memory. That might make you worry she has dementia. (You can take this hypothetical worry off your shoulders. Poor memory is typical of depression in the elderly.) 

When you understand what depression may look like as you age, you’ll be able to spend less time anxiously Googling symptoms and more time enjoying your loved ones.

5 Signs to Watch Out For

  1. Serious Sleep Problems
  2. Confusion, Weakness, Delirium
  3. Arms and Legs that Feel like Cannons
  4. Pain
  5. Vision Problems

You’ll also be a stronger health advocate, both for yourself and older family members who may not feel as empowered. 

Signs & Symptoms of Depression in the Elderly

1.    Serious Sleep Problems 

Too much or too little sleep (hypersomnia and insomnia, respectively) can signal mental health problems – but that’s usually before society crowns you a senior. Sleep problems are so common in seniors that they aren’t even included in the Geriatric Depression Scale, a depression screening questionnaire. 

The DSM-5 (Diagnostic Criteria for Major Depressive Disorder) does consider poor sleep, but with caveats. Sleep problems could indicate depression if you:

  • Have hypersomnia or insomnia nearly every day for two weeks
  • Don’t usually have much trouble sleeping
  • Also meet at least four other criteria for depression

2.    Confusion, Weakness, Delirium

If your teenager developed these symptoms, you’d probably panic and call 9-1-1. If your elderly father developed these symptoms, you could probably take a “wait and see what the doctor says” approach. They could be symptoms of depression, but they could also be symptoms of a sodium imbalance. A doctor would need to test for liver function and serum electrolytes to know for sure.

3.    Arms and Legs that Feel like Cannons 

Fatigue isn’t just a fancy word for tired. It’s a certain kind of tired: A completely-out-of-gas, mental and physical exhaustion. Depression-related fatigue can range from a daily loss of energy to “leaden paralysis,” which is when your arms and legs feel heavy, like lead. 

Treating the depression itself with lifestyle changes, therapy, and antidepressants may turn things around. If they don’t, and you still feel you’re slowed down by the “weight” of your limbs, you may benefit from a wakefulness-promoting drug.  

4. Pain

The older we get, the more aches and pains we seem to have. These should be no big deal. So, if you have frequent, difficult-to-control pain, we recommend you see a doctor as soon as possible. Depending on your other symptoms, your doctor may consider a chronic pain condition, depression, or some other illness.

Many studies have correlated depression with pain. Overall, women seem more likely than men to report pain – especially headaches – as a symptom.  

5. Vision problems

This may surprise you: Among older adults, those with visual function loss were more likely to report depression than their counterparts. Unfortunately, this link often goes unrecognized and untreated. Researchers link this depression to social isolation and loneliness brought on by reduced mobility. Other studies show that vision loss can lead to anxiety and stress.

If you’ve experienced vision loss that’s affecting your ability to socialize or live a full life, let your physician know. He or she may be able to help address your mobility issues and help you with feelings of depression.


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