depression and agingIt’s surprising that so many people refer to our older years as our golden ones. Growing older can be difficult. We tend to experience more illness and less stamina. Plus, our 50s, 60s and beyond tend to be full of big life changes. We or our spouses may retire, we may become empty nesters or loved ones may die.

With so many major adjustments, it’s no wonder that depression is a common problem among today’s seniors. In fact, about 6.5 million Americans over age 65 suffer from depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Depression often goes unnoticed and untreated in seniors. Some common signs of depression include fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, sadness, crying, irritability, hopelessness, changes in eating patterns, and indecision. If these symptoms are new to you or if the severity of these symptoms has increased for several weeks, it’s important to be evaluated. Left untreated, depression can lead to further disability, increased incidents and severity of other illnesses and possibly premature death.

While depression clearly is a serious illness, it is also treatable; early treatment is more effective, reduces the symptoms and chance of recurrence.

The most common (and effective) treatments today include talk therapy and medication. Studies show that about 80 percent of older adults with depression improve when they receive treatment with an antidepressant, psychotherapy or a combination of both. Additionally, continuing research shows that healing depression often improves treatment outcomes of other medical conditions.

Talk therapy helps by changing negative thinking patterns. It comes in a number of forms, such as support groups, clergy counseling, one-on-one psychotherapy or simply in confiding in a good friend or family member. You may want to try a few different settings to see which best fits your needs.

Medication works by treating imbalances in brain chemistry, improving mood, concentration, appetite and sleep. New research shows these medications also offer benefits for people suffering from age-related illnesses, such as dementia. People with these illnesses have lesions beneath the cortex of the brain, but those who have taken antidepressants show fewer increases in lesions than those who continue to be depressed.

In addition to these traditional therapies, it helps to stay involved and active. People who suffer from depression tend to withdraw and isolate themselves from society. By staying involved in social activities you focus on something besides your feelings of isolation and sadness. Even if it’s only temporary, it can remind you what it feels like to be depression-free and help you look forward to what’s ahead.

If getting out and about is difficult, you can stay involved in other ways. One interesting new study, reported at an American Psychological Association meeting, found that seniors who master computers have fewer symptoms of depression than those who are not technologically connected.

Also, be sure to exercise. Even if you have physical limitations, move what you can to get a release of the feel-good hormones that follow exercise. Ample research has shown that even 30 minutes of walking each day can dramatically decrease symptoms.

Finally, remember that depression is not normal at any age. Like any other illness, seek treatment and you’ll likely find there’s something golden about these years after all.