Understanding Depression Among Aging Americans

As the population of the United States ages, there is a growing need to focus on the mental health challenges faced by older adults, particularly depression. According to the Healthy Aging Program at the CDC, “Because mental health is essential to overall health, it should be treated in all Americans, including older adults, with the same urgency as physical health.”

  • 46 Million1 people age 65 or older live in the U.S.
  • 20%2 of people age 55 or older have some type of mental health disorder.
  • 7 Million3 people age 65 or older suffer from depression.

What Factors Complicate Diagnosis?

  • According to the CDC, the majority of older adults are not depressed. However, those who do experience depression or other mental health issues are often misdiagnosed or undertreated.4
  • Mental and physical health are linked. Depression can exacerbate existing physical or chronic conditions, and vice versa.5
  • 80% of older Americans have at least one chronic condition.6
  • 50% have two or more.7
  • Many older adults don’t seek treatment due to factors such as:8
    • Inadequate insurance coverage
    • Lack of coordination among primary care, mental health and aging service providers
    • Stigma surrounding mental health and its treatment
    • Access barriers such as transportation
  • 60% of older adults do not receive the treatment they need for depression.9

Why is Depression Dangerous for Older Adults?

Depression is a leading risk factor for suicide. Studies show that depression and other mental health challenges can lead to suicide in older adults at alarming rates. Over the past two decades, rates of suicide among older adults in the U.S. have steadily increased.

  • 8,255 Americans age 85 or older died by suicide in 2014.
  • 44% The increase in suicide rates for women ages 65-74 between 1999 and 2014.
  • 7.5% The increase in suicide rates for men in ages 65-74 between 1999 and 2014.

Awareness and Prevention Can Make a Difference

Although depression can be difficult to recognize among older people, caregivers and primary care practitioners should understand that it is not a normal part of growing older, nor is it incurable.

80% of older Americans who suffer from depression could be successfully treated if they saw a physician or were properly diagnosed.10

How to Recognize and Respond

  1. Watch for warning signs:
    • Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
    • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness
    • Irritability, restlessness
    • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
    • Fatigue and decreased energy
    • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
    • Insomnia, early morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
    • Overeating or appetite loss
    • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
    • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment11
  2. Take mentions and thoughts of suicide seriously.
    • Seek immediate medical attention from a primary care practitioner. For confidential advice, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.12
  3. Consult health care professionals. They can:
    • Determine whether an underlying condition whose symptoms can mimic depression, such as anemia or pneumonia, could be the cause.
    • Evaluate medication regimens. Certain combinations of drugs for behavioral and physical conditions can cause or exacerbate depression.
    • Suggest common treatments for depression such as psychotherapy, antidepressant medications, or electroconvulsive.13

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