What causes depression in the elderly?

The symptoms of depression in later life are often difficult to recognise at first. They are also often attributed to another mental illness. However, the right diagnosis is extremely important for providing adequate and timely treatment – whether this is therapeutic or medicinal.

28.10.2021 Lara Brunner 3 minutes

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the elderly. In patients over 65 years old, this is often referred to as late-life depression. They may have never experienced it before, or it could be triggered again by an illness. 

Triggers for depression in the elderly

In addition to a genetic predisposition, other factors can cause depression in the elderly:

  • psychosocial stress e.g. due to impending retirement
  • loss of caregivers
  • drastic events
  • nutritional deficiencies or malnutrition
  • financial problems
  • severe illness
  • certain medications e.g. for Parkinson’s or cardiovascular problems
  • changes in the brain caused by illnesses
  • reduced performance due to physical changes

Symptoms of depression in the elderly

In contrast to younger people, depression in old age often manifests itself in the form of physical complaints. Some of these may be psychosomatic. This means that there are interactions between mental and physical health. The main symptoms include headaches, back pain, dizziness and gastrointestinal problems. The typical change in mood usually takes place gradually in the background.

Other symptoms of late-life depression are similar to those of normal depression. These include, for example, restlessness, listlessness, trouble sleeping or loss of appetite.

Diagnosing depression in the elderly

Late-life depression is often not easy to recognise. One of the reasons for this is that older patients tend to focus more on physical illnesses and conceal mental health problems. In addition, cognitive disorders often cannot be easily distinguished from the onset of dementia. Plus, symptoms like social withdrawal or loss of interest are seen as a natural part of ageing.

Treating depression in the elderly

Depending on the severity of the depression, therapeutic treatment may not be enough. It is then combined with medicinal treatments – just like typical depression. It is also important that the physical illnesses associated with late-life depression are also treated.

Preventing depression in the elderly

The following factors are considered protective factors and reduce the risk of developing depression:

  • active lifestyle with regular physical exercise
  • balanced diet
  • adequate hydration
  • good social network
  • structured daily routine

Do you have any other questions?

Do you require any further information or have any questions about depression in the elderly? Our health consultation advisors are happy to help you.

Tips on depression in the elderly

Are you affected by late-life depression? Or is one of your relatives suffering from it? The following tips may help:

Tips for sufferers

  • If you suspect you might be depressed, contact your GP.
  • Share it. Talk to relatives or other sufferers about your problems.
  • Depression is an illness and not all in your head. Do not feel ashamed about it.
  • Have patience with yourself.
  • Bear in mind that medication often does not take effect until after two to three weeks. Do not expect a sudden improvement.
  • Speak to your therapist about what you can do yourself to help with your recovery.

Tips for relatives

  • If the person concerned lives in a retirement or nursing home, speak to the nursing staff if you suspect that they may be depressed. They can observe the behaviour of the person and help to address the problem.
  • Show understanding for the person that is suffering. They perceive themselves and their environment to be different or more intense during this time.
  • Don't downplay the illness. Statements like “You’re just feeling low right now. Things are bound to get better.” can cause the suffering person to feel that they are not being taken seriously.
  • Be careful with the way you phrase advice. People suffering from depression are often quick to blame themselves.
  • Try not to unnaturally lighten the mood. Acting as if you are in mourning is also not helpful. Try to act naturally.

Good to know: the tips listed above do not only apply to depression in the elderly. They are applicable for all forms of depression.

Read more

How to recognise mental illness
Psychological problems throw life out of balance. Typical symptoms include depression, anxiety, addiction or odd behaviour.
August 22, 2023 2 minutes

The most common types of depression
There’s not just one kind of depression. Alongside normal depression, there are also other types. You can find out more here.
October 29, 2021 4 minutes


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