Elderly more prone to depression, suicide

Suicide rates by age demographic for the year 2012 (Graphic by Shelby Edwards)

The elderly suffer from depression in larger numbers than most other age demographics, making them more likely to commit suicide.

Due to Arizona’s large elderly population, keeping aging adults mentally healthy and happy is a growing concern that officials are working to address.

According to Census information from 2012, Arizona is fifth on the list of population growth between 2010 and 2012 for adults over 65 years of age. The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that in 2014, 15.9 percent of Arizona’s population consists of adults 65 years and older. Due to the large number of “Baby Boomers” growing older and entering retirement, and because Arizona is a popular retirement destination, it is projected that by 2025 there will be as many people over the age of 65 as there are under 15 years of age living in the state.

Older adults experience a lot of change, from retirement to dealing with the loss of loved ones, lack of mobility and lack of social interaction. These adults must make great adjustments within a very short period of time. Depression can be triggered by these changes, and according to Dr. Ole J. Thienhaus, can be considered risk factors.

Thienhaus, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona and a member of the Maricopa County Medical Society, explains that in addition to the psychosocial factors, there are also medical causes for depression that impact adults. With a condition called ischemia, blood vessels stiffen with time and prevent optimal blood flow to the brain. This can be a cause of something called vascular depression, which can also put people at risk of heart disease, stroke and other vascular related illnesses.

“Certain illnesses that are more common in old people can also cause depression directly, certain cancers and hormonal conditions,” say. Thienhaus, “Commonly, [the] onset of dementia is associated with depression as are certain other neurodegenerative illnesses, such as Parkinson’s [disease]”.

Though there are many different catalysts to the elderly experiencing depression, it is not a natural process of aging. “Sometimes people assume that ‘it’s just being old’, but old age per se is not an adequate explanation for a persistent mood change. The basic principles of psychiatric treatment of depression in older patients are not different from those in younger adults.”

Though depression can be a difficult disorder to confront, there are simple preventative ways to help avoid it. Being available and caring for older adults can be a huge contributor to preventing depression.

“We can help older people by keeping them involved. Visit, invite, write, arrange for volunteer jobs… Family and caregivers can be encouraging and accommodating,” he said.  In addition, the elderly should keep their minds and bodies both occupied and healthy to improve overall health as well as help prevent beginning signs of depression.

Virginia Kat, a middle-aged resident of Tucson who is currently enrolled in classes at the University of Arizona, knows exactly what it means to be both physically and mentally active and knows how to take advantage of the opportunities Arizona has to offer.

“I like to walk my dogs most mornings, I work out at the Racquet Club 2-3 times a week, and I am getting back into riding my bike,” says Kat. Her active lifestyle is not limited to Tucson. 

“Last summer I went on a pilgrimage to Spain and walked 66 mile of the Camino de Santiago in two weeks. Later this summer my husband and I went to Alaska where we did kayaking and hiking most days.”

Currently working on finishing her bachelor’s degree, Kat believes that challenging oneself physically and focusing one’s mind mentally shouldn’t stop when you grow older.

Sudden life changes, health issues and loneliness are all causes of depression as well as issues that elderly deal with constantly. With 15 in 100 adults over the age of 65 being affected by depressive disorder, according to American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry,  it’s clear that depression is an issue.

Eighty percent of those with depression recover when they are treated properly, according to the association. The best way to deal with depression, according to the association,  among the elderly is first recognizing depression, and then seeking proper help. 

Shelby Edwards is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at sedwards1@email.arizona.edu

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