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Understanding Depression and Anxiety in Seniors

elderly woman that is distressed

From the outside looking in, it often seems like retirement should be one of the best times of people’s lives. After all, retired adults no longer have to worry about the nine-to-five grind, and they often have more free time for hobbies and travel. Sounds like the perfect recipe for happiness and fulfillment, right? However, anxiety and depression in seniors are more common than many think. 

Experts estimate that mental illnesses affect over 20% of adults over the age of 60. Depression is one of the most prevalent mental conditions, impacting 10% to 25% of seniors. Also, around 12% of older adults have anxiety disorders. These two conditions often go hand-in-hand: Approximately 36% of seniors with depression also have anxiety. 

Anxiety and depression in elderly people can significantly impact their overall health and quality of life. These disorders can cause seniors to isolate themselves from their families and communities, leading to a cycle of sadness and loneliness. Additionally, mental illness can directly affect physical health. For instance, people with depression and anxiety produce higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can cause cardiovascular disease

Understanding older adult mental health issues can help you recognize the warning signs of anxiety and depression in your loved ones. This guide addresses these common disorders’ symptoms, causes, and treatment options. 

Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety in Seniors

Anxiety and depression are distinct mental conditions, but they often have overlapping symptoms. Additionally, many older adults experience both disorders simultaneously. As a result, it can sometimes be challenging to figure out which condition affects your loved one without a professional diagnosis. 

Below, we compare common symptoms of each disorder to give you a starting point to discuss your concerns with your loved one. 

Signs of Depression in Older Adults

Sadness is an inevitable part of life, but people with clinical depression experience abnormal and persistent feelings of emptiness or unhappiness. These feelings often impair their daily functioning and cause them to withdraw from friends and family.

Symptoms of depression in elderly people typically last for two or more weeks and may include: 

  • Recurring or continuous feelings of anxiety, numbness, or sadness
  • Changes in eating patterns 
  • Increased anger or irritation 
  • Restlessness
  • Disinterest in hobbies 
  • Lack of concentration 
  • Memory problems 
  • Fatigue 
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep 
  • Suicidal ideation 

However, depression can look different for everyone. If you notice changes in your loved one’s behavior or mood, encourage them to consult a mental health professional.

Signs of Anxiety in Older Adults

Overwhelming feelings of fear or nervousness characterize anxiety disorders in seniors. Often, these feelings get triggered by everyday situations, such as interacting with peers or driving. At other times, someone may feel excessive anxiety for no identifiable reason. 

Anxiety in elderly people often has mental and physical symptoms, such as: 

  • Uncontrollable feelings of dread or nervousness
  • Insomnia 
  • Constant alertness 
  • Obsessive behaviors or thoughts
  • Inability to sit still 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Trouble breathing 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Headaches
  • Shaking 
  • Frequent urination 

Like depression, anxiety can disrupt older adults’ daily functioning and negatively impact their health. Encourage your loved one to see a healthcare professional if you suspect they may have one or both conditions. 

Causes of Depression and Anxiety in Seniors

Depression and anxiety are complex mental illnesses with many possible triggers. Below, we discuss some of the most common causes of these disorders in seniors. 

Causes of Depression in Elderly People

Social isolation and loneliness are two leading causes of clinical depression in older adults. Many seniors gradually lose their social networks as they grow older due to the death of their spouses, retirement, illness, and other factors. Older adults who choose to age in place may find it challenging to build and maintain social connections, especially in rural areas. As a result, they may be more prone to developing depression.  

Other possible causes of depression in seniors include:  

  • Disruptive life changes, such as a cancer diagnosis or a house fire 
  • Providing care for a spouse 
  • Physical health conditions
  • Family history of clinical depression 
  • Sleep disorders
  • Inadequate exercise 

Additionally, medications can alter brain chemistry and cause depression as a side effect. Common drugs linked to depression include certain beta-blockers, corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, and statins. 

Causes of Anxiety in Elderly People 

Like depression, anxiety in older adults is frequently caused by loneliness. Humans are inherently social creatures, so a lack of meaningful connections can heighten anxiety and stress. Seniors with cognitive impairments may be especially prone to developing anxiety due to social isolation. 

Anxiety has many other causes, such as: 

  • Stressful life events, such as moving to a new home or losing a job
  • Financial instability
  • Chronic medical disorders
  • Irregular sleep
  • Lack of mobility
  • Illness or fears of developing illness
  • Alcohol consumption 
  • Certain medications, including antidepressants, inhalers, steroids, and stimulants

A healthcare professional may be able to pinpoint the cause of anxiety or depression in seniors. 

Effects of Depression and Anxiety on Seniors

Depression and anxiety affect more than mood. These mental illnesses can profoundly impact many aspects of seniors’ health, causing their overall quality of life to decline. Here are a few common effects your loved one may experience. 

Physical Effects

Anxiety and depression often don’t have physical symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they don’t affect the body. Poor mental health in seniors has been linked to these conditions: 

  • Cardiovascular DiseaseDepression and anxiety increase blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. These effects can cause heart disease and calcium blockages in the arteries. 
  • Gastrointestinal DisordersStress caused by depression and anxiety causes the body to release hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals can disrupt digestion and bacteria levels in the stomach, leading to gastrointestinal disorders. 
  • InflammationChronic stress caused by anxiety increases inflammation levels, reducing the body’s ability to fight off infection. 

Emotional Effects 

Mental illness also directly impacts seniors’ emotions, causing effects like these: 

  • Emotional DysregulationDepression and anxiety make it difficult for older adults to self-regulate their emotions, causing mood swings and irritability. 
  • Emotional BluntingDepression may reduce seniors’ ability to feel positive and negative emotions. 

Social Effects 

Depression and anxiety can make it difficult for seniors to form and maintain social connections. Also, depressed individuals tend to spend time with other depressed people, worsening their symptoms. 

Treatment Options for Depression and Anxiety in Seniors

Anxiety and depression, like physical diseases, don’t miraculously go away on their own. Instead, these conditions require treatment from skilled healthcare professionals. 

Common treatment methods include:

  • MedicationAntidepressant medications like Prozac, Wellbutrin, and Zoloft reduce symptoms of depression in 70% to 80% of people. These medications also treat anxiety disorders.  
  • Therapy and CounselingA combination of medication and psychotherapy can help seniors develop resiliency and treat anxiety and depression. One popular treatment for these conditions is cognitive behavioral therapy. This method teaches patients how to develop coping skills and alter unhealthy thought patterns. 
  • Lifestyle Changes: A healthy lifestyle improves older adults’ psychological well-being. Frequent exercise and a nutritious diet may prevent or treat anxiety or depression. Additionally, spending time in nature, owning a pet, and reducing social media usage can improve mental health. 
  • Support Groups: Many healthcare providers and retirement communities organize in-person or virtual support groups for seniors with anxiety and depression. These meetings give older adults a safe place to talk about their emotions and decrease feelings of isolation. 

Finding the right treatment may take several tries, so don’t get discouraged if your loved one doesn’t see immediate results.


How to Support Your Loved Ones with Depression and Anxiety

Seeing your loved one struggle with depression or anxiety is often heart-wrenching and stressful. However, there are many ways that you can support them, including: 

  • Research Senior Living Communities: Retirement communities provide many opportunities for seniors to socialize with their peers and stay mentally and physically active. Help your loved one feel less socially isolated by identifying retirement communities that fit their needs. 
  • Recognize Symptoms: Older adults often don’t realize they have a mental health problem. Gently pointing out symptoms of depression or anxiety may prompt them to seek help. 
  • Practice Effective Communication: Clear and frequent communication with your loved one helps reduce feelings of isolation and encourages them to talk about their thoughts and emotions.
  • Encourage Self-Care: Simple acts of self-care can help older adults manage stress and regulate their moods. You can encourage self-care by inviting your loved one for a short walk, giving them a gratitude journal, or encouraging them to get a massage. 
  • Provide Emotional Support: Listening to your loved one and offering reassurance can help them better cope with their depression or anxiety. 
  • Locate Treatment Options: Anxiety and depression can make it challenging for seniors to pursue treatment. You can assist them by researching therapists covered by their insurance and arranging appointments.

Promote Mental Well-Being With Healthy Aging 

Anxiety and depression affect many seniors, but they’re not an inevitable part of aging. Older adults can reduce their risk of developing these disorders by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, such as exercising daily and participating in mentally enriching activities. 

Additionally, joining a retirement community is one of the best ways to prevent or treat anxiety and depression and promote healthy aging. A communal living environment provides residents with plentiful opportunities to engage with peers and form meaningful relationships, reducing social isolation. Contact Senior Resource Group today to learn how we can help safeguard your loved one’s mental and physical well-being.