Dr. Hong-Phuc Tran, M.D.
Now that holiday festivities are over and the New Year is well underway, I would like to talk about an important topic that can impact the quality of life for many elderly people – depression.
Depression is a common medical condition that can be easily treated. However, many patients and their loved ones often are reluctant to talk about depression because of a lingering social stigma. Of the 35 million Americans aged 65 or older, more than 6.5 million – almost 20 percent – are affected by the condition, and depression is twice more common in women than in men.
Unlike occasional feelings of sadness, which most people experience, depression is a persistent sadness that can last for months or even years. There are varying degrees and different types of depression, some of which can interfere significantly with emotional and physical health, as well as quality of life. If untreated, depression can become severe and may eventually lead to suicide.
Major depression is characterized by the following symptoms occurring for at least a two-week period:
Persistently sad or irritable mood
Problems with sleep
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
that were once enjoyable
Feelings of guilt, hopelessness or
Problems with concentration
Changes in appetite
Slowness in thinking or movement
Thoughts of suicide or death
Patients with depression typically have insomnia and poor appetite. However, they also may have atypical symptoms such as sleeping too much or overeating. In older adults, depression can be more difficult to recognize and may present as confusion, memory problems, social withdrawal and vague physical or pain complaints. Less severe forms of depression (mild and moderate) are diagnosed when patients have some but not all of the symptoms listed above. No matter how mild, depression should be treated to prevent it from becoming crippling.
Depression can be caused by various factors, including biological, psychological and environmental issues. Many experts agree that there is a correlation between depression and an imbalance in different brain chemicals. Life events, such as loss of independence or death of a loved one, may also trigger depression. A family history also increases one’s risk for developing the condition.
Depression usually can be treated easily with medications and psychotherapy. If you think you or your loved one is suffering from depression, please do not hesitate to contact your doctor. No one should be embarrassed to seek help for depression and your primary-care doctor can help you overcome it.
Dr. Hong-Phuc Tran is a geriatrician with the highly regarded UCLA Geriatrics Program in Santa Monica. For more information, call 310.319.4371 or visit www.uclahealth.org.