Depression is a common condition for the elderly, and the decreased light and increased cold of winter can exacerbate the ailment. The increased presence of depressive symptoms during the winter months is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition that is more likely to strike adult women than men and those who live in the more northern regions of the country.
How depressive conditions affect the elderly
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the elderly are at a greater risk of developing depression, but are often misdiagnosed or undertreated for it. Other chronic health conditions increase the chances of a person developing a depressive disorder, and as much as 80 percent of the elderly population in the United States have a chronic health condition. Elderly patients who require home care or hospital stays to treat their illnesses are at an even greater risk for depression.
Along with the difficulties that a chronic illness can bring, seniors are also likely to experiences losses in the social networks, which can contribute to the formation of clinical depression. The brain can also experience chemical changes with age that can lead to depression.
SAD can lead to depressive symptoms in seniors who are not diagnosed with chronic depression. Not everyone who experiences SAD is clinically depressed, but SAD can increase the effects of those who do live with chronic depression. Caregivers should be on the lookout for indicators of SAD in their older loved ones during the winter months.
Signs that a person is affected by SAD include loss of interest in things the person once enjoyed, changes in appetite or sleep, sadness, anxiety, fatigue, hypersensitivity and feelings of hopelessness.
Causes of SAD
SAD can be easier to treat than other depressive disorders because it is a temporary condition and it's easier to pinpoint its cause.
There are several factors that contribute to the development of SAD that primarily link back to a lack of sunlight. Between harsh weather, fewer hours of daylight and the sun's further distance from the earth, people see less sun exposure in the winter.
Results of less sun include:
- Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for people of every age, but is especially important for aging seniors. This vitamin helps the body absorb calcium, which is important for bone health. Natural sunlight can provide vitamin D, so the shorter daylight hours of winter can lead to this deprivation. When the body doesn't feel as good as it should, it can lead to more depressive symptoms.
- Decreased serotonin levels. Serotonin is an important brain chemical for regulated mood. A lack of sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop and create a chemical imbalance that makes a person feel depressed.
- Disrupted sleep patterns. Sun exposure plays an important role in regulating a person's circadian rhythm, which affects how well he sleeps. The decreased sunlight can cause the sleep cycle to be thrown off so that a senior is not getting enough quality, healthy sleep, triggering depression.
Many of the symptoms could be signs of other conditions or illnesses, especially for older people. Because of this, it's important to discuss the possibility of SAD or chronic depression with a medical professional to be sure a more serious health concern is not being overlooked.
To treat SAD, light therapy is often the first recommendation. Seniors should spend some time outside when the sun is out when they can, or use an indoor sunlamp to mimic the effects of natural sunlight. Vitamin supplements can also help offset the effects of SAD.
Most importantly, caregivers and family members should be loving and supportive with their elderly loved one to help him cope with the condition. Keeping them comfortable and calm can help ease their symptoms.