Depression affects people of all ages. It is not an inevitable or normal aspect of ageing, although some of the changes that may accompany ageing, such as poor health and the loss of peers and loved ones, may contribute to it. Depression is a medical condition related to changes in the chemistry of the brain. It is more severe and enduring than simple sadness or low mood. It is also different from the sadness of grief, which is a healthy response to loss.
What causes depression?
Depression is related to changes in the levels of certain chemicals in the brain. These changes can make the depression very difficult to break out of without treatment. Depression can be brought on by external circumstances. In older men, difficulty adjusting to retirement, chronic illness, the death of a spouse, and financial stress are common experiences that can contribute to the development of depression.
What are the signs?
Depression is often experienced as a persistently low or sad mood that has lasted longer than two weeks. Other possible symptoms of depression include:
- Memory loss, slowing of thought, and difficulty making decisions
- Negative thoughts, such as feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Physical symptoms, including weakness, headaches and sleeping problems
Depression is often not recognised by relatives and friends of older people because the symptoms may be interpreted as normal aspects of the ageing process.
Men in general, and older men in particular, tend to hide or deny their depression. This is often due to cultural ideas about manhood suggesting that men should keep their feelings to themselves and that mental health problems are a sign of personal weakness (see Men and Emotions). Men who hold strongly to these traditional ideas about masculinity may be very reluctant to seek help or even admit to feeling sad. They may focus on physical symptoms rather than their emotions. Some older men also fear being labelled as 'crazy' if they talk to a doctor about their mental condition.
The reluctance to admit to or seek help for depression means that many older men suffer from untreated depression. Untreated depression is probably responsible for the suicide of many older men.
Depression is very treatable, although in older people treatment may take somewhat longer to work than in young people. On average, depression takes twelve weeks to improve in older people once treatment is commenced. The most effective form of treatment for depression is a combination of anti-depressant medications and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy usually involves working with the therapist to change some of the negative thought habits that may contribute to depression.
Here are some simple things you can do to reduce your risk of depression and improve your mood:
- Eat healthily and regularly.
- Take one day at a time and avoid worrying too much about the future.
- Make sure you get some regular exercise, such as doing a daily walk. Exercise releases 'happy chemicals' in the brain which help combat depression, and may be as effective as anti-depressant medication.
- Keep in touch with friends and family. One of the biggest risk factors for depression in older people is social isolation.
- Talk to others about how you're feeling. It could be a GP, friend or counsellor.
- Get involved. Join a club or social group, do some volunteer work with your church or a charity group.
- Take up a new hobby or do some further study.
- Think positive. An optimistic outlook, focussing on what you have rather than what you don't, helps to protect against depression.
- Most importantly: Don't suffer in silence. If you think you might be depressed, talk to someone today (see getting help below).
Getting help and information
The following are some sources of more information about depression.
beyondblue — the National Depression Initiative
Information and referral to treatment providers.
1300 22 46 36
General telephone counselling
13 11 14
Author: Pierz Newton-John