Causes of Depression in Older Adults (Loneliness and Isolation, Medical Conditions)

Elderly couple walking near water

As we grow older, we often face significant life changes that can increase the risk for depression. These can include:

Health problems. Illness and disability, chronic or severe pain, cognitive decline, damage to your body image due to surgery, or sickness can all be contributors to depression.

Loneliness and isolation. Factors such as living alone, a dwindling social circle due to deaths or relocation, decreased mobility due to illness or a loss of driving privileges can trigger depression.

Reduced sense of purpose. Retirement can bring with it a loss of identity, status, self-confidence, and financial security and increase the risk of depression.  Physical limitations on activities you used to enjoy can also impact your sense of purpose.

Fears. These include a fear of death or dying as well as anxiety over financial problems or health issues.

Recent bereavements. The death of friends, family members, and pets, or the loss of a spouse or partner are common causes of depression in older adults.

Medical conditions that can cause elderly depression

It’s important to be aware that medical problems can cause depression in older adults and the elderly, either directly or as a psychological reaction to the illness. Any chronic medical condition, particularly if it is painful, disabling, or life-threatening, can lead to depression or make your depression symptoms worse.

These include:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lupus
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)

Elderly depression as a side effect of medication

Symptoms of depression can also occur as a side effect of many commonly prescribed drugs. You’re particularly at risk if you’re taking multiple medications. While the mood-related side effects of prescription medication can affect anyone, older adults are more sensitive because, as we age, our bodies become less efficient at metabolizing and processing drugs.

If you feel depressed after starting a new medication, talk to your doctor. You may be able to lower your dose or switch to another medication that doesn’t impact your mood.

Medications that can cause or worsen depression include:

  • Blood pressure medication (e.g. clonidine).
  • Beta-blockers (e.g. Lopressor, Inderal).
  • High-cholesterol drugs (e.g. Lipitor, Mevacor, Zocor).
  • Tranquilizers (e.g. Valium, Xanax, Halcion).
  • Calcium-channel blockers.
  • Medication for Parkinson’s disease.
  • Sleeping pills.
  • Ulcer medication (e.g. Zantac, Tagamet).=
  • Heart drugs containing reserpine.
  • Steroids (e.g. cortisone and prednisone).
  • Painkillers and arthritis drugs.
  • Estrogens (e.g. Premarin, Prempro).
  • Anticholinergic drugs are used to treat GI disorders.

Dementia vs. depression

Never assume that a loss of mental sharpness is just a normal sign of old age. It could be a sign of either depression or dementia, both of which are common in older adults. Depression and dementia share many similar symptoms, including memory problems, sluggish speech and movements, and low motivation, so it can be difficult to tell the two apart.

Is it Depression or Dementia?
Symptoms of Depression Symptoms of Dementia
Mental decline is relatively rapid Mental decline happens slowly
Know the correct time, date, and where you are Be confused and disoriented; become lost in familiar locations
Difficulty concentrating Difficulty with short-term memory
Language and motor skills are slow but normal Writing, speaking, and motor skills are impaired
You notice or worry about memory problems You don’t notice memory problems or seem to care

Whether the cognitive decline is caused by dementia or depression, it’s important to see a doctor right away. If it’s depression, memory, concentration, and energy will bounce back with treatment. Treatment for dementia will also improve your quality of life. And in some types of dementia, symptoms can be reversed, halted, or slowed.

Are you concerned about a family member that is still on their own and might be suffering from depression? Talk to their health care provider and ask if moving where they can be cared for might help.

If this is the case, reach out to Three Tree Vista for a tour.