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Depression in older people

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
10 November 2021

Depression is a serious illness that can cause a continuous low mood. It can be particularly common in older adults. But, that doesn’t mean it should be seen as a normal part of ageing. Here I’ll look at how depression affects older people and what you can do to manage it.

Risk factors of depression in older adults

There can be lots of different reasons for developing depression at any age. It’s often down to a combination of several factors. But as we get older, there may be certain things that make depression more likely. These can include:

  • dealing with more health problems
  • loss of independence
  • stopping working
  • bereavement of a partner or friend
  • loneliness

 

Having dementia, which becomes more common as you get older, can also make you more likely to become depressed too.

Symptoms of depression in older adults

Typical symptoms of depression include feeling down or hopeless most of the time. You may also have little interest in things you’d usually enjoy. But depression can appear differently in older people. These typical symptoms of low mood and lack of interest may be less obvious. Instead, older people may be more likely to have physical symptoms. These might include as loss of appetite, fatigue (tiredness), and trouble sleeping.

What else might it be?

As symptoms of depression in older people can be quite vague, it’s often confused with other conditions common in older age. These might include the following.

  • Dementia. This is a condition affecting the brain, causing problems with memory, behaviour and communication. Some of the symptoms of dementia can be similar to those of depression. These can include feeling disorientated and distracted. It can be difficult to tell the two conditions apart, especially as older people often have both at the same time. In fact, having one condition can increase the risk of developing the other.
  • Delirium. This refers to a sudden change in someone’s mental state, often causing confusion and disorientation. It can happen as the result of another illness, or a side-effect of certain medication. Certain types of delirium can cause the person to appear drowsy, withdrawn and having trouble focusing. This can be very similar to symptoms of depression.

 

Getting support

If you’ve been experiencing symptoms discussed here for a couple of weeks or more, do contact your GP. Encourage loved ones to see their GP too, if you’ve noticed changes in their mood or behaviour. Your GP will assess the symptoms and may offer treatments to help. These can include talking therapies and antidepressants.

There are many ways to help a friend or relative who’s depressed. Support them to make sure they’re eating well, keeping active and taking care of their personal needs. This can all help. Encourage your loved one to maintain social connections as much as possible. You could explore services available in the local community for older people – the Age UK website below lists local services.

Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of ageing. Taking care of your mental wellbeing – as you would a physical problem – can help you to stay healthy and happy into older age.

Further support and advice

Fatmata Kamara
Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

    • Depression. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised March 2021
    • Depression. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published March 2019
    • Depression and anxiety. Age UK. www.ageuk.org.uk, last updated 20 April 2021
    • Depression in adults. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 3 October 2021
    • Dementia. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised May 2021
    • Leyhe T, Reynolds CF, Melcher T, et al. A common challenge in older adults: Classification, overlap, and therapy of depression and dementia. Alzheimers Dement 2017;13(1): 59-71. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2016.08.007
    • Delirium. Alzheimer's Society. alzheimers.org.uk, accessed 3 November 2021
    • Delirium. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised March 2021 2020

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