How to stave off depression in later life

How to stave off depression in later life

Whether it's moving from work into retirement or dealing with the loss of a loved one, it's evident that the stresses and feelings of isolation in later life can take their toll. And it may come as little surprise that nearly half of all adults aged 55 and over said they had experienced depression, according to a recent survey by Age UK. 

One in four older adults now live with depression, says Tom Gentry, senior health influencing manager at Age UK. And with the UK's population growing and living longer, there are more people than ever living with the condition.

"This is broadly in line with other age groups. Yet despite its increasing prevalence, older people aren't able to access the same level of support," reveals Gentry.

"As we age, a lot of risk factors that we know exist for depression do start to build up. Many people are living with long-term conditions, including type 2 diabetes and coronary heart failure, and these are all things that will contribute to a diagnosis of depression.

"They may experience bereavement, financial worries or a transition out of work, so they lose the purpose they once had," explains Gentry.

In addition, feelings of loneliness and isolation can play a major role in the issues older adults are facing.

"We have also noticed that the rate of depression doubles in the presence of physical illness and trebles in hospitals and care homes - so there will be concentrations within the older population where it is higher," says Gentry.

Spotting the signs

Everyone's experience of depression is unique. Older people can experience symptoms similar to younger adults, including a low mood, feeling tired, sleeping too much or too little, changes in appetite and not getting any pleasure from activities they previously enjoyed.

Gentry advises that the same associations of depression aren't always recognised among older age groups.

"Some of the symptoms of depression are in some ways stereotypical of an older person and seen as a normal part of ageing," he says.

Depression symptoms that may be more common in older adults can include:

  • Physical rather than emotional symptoms, including tiredness, faintness or dizziness, pain, heavy limbs and pain, weight loss and problems sleeping.
  • Anxiety.
  • Slow emotional reactions.
  • Agitation.

Some signs of depression can also be misdiagnosed as dementia, says Tom. These include confusion, concentration and memory problems.

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How can older adults support their mental health?

Mental health is as important in older age as it is at any other time in someone's life, says Richard Colwill, spokesperson for mental health charity SANE. But older people aren't always able to access the same level of support as other age groups.

With this in mind, here are some steps an older adult can take to help maintain good mental health:

Make social connections a priority

Over half a million older people in the UK go a week without seeing anyone, while about 3.9 million say that television is their main company, according to research by Age UK. And there's growing evidence that lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression.

Having a support network is hugely important, says Gentry. "Make sure you maintain social connections and remain as active as possible. Go out to activities - Age UK has a huge variety of social events and groups for older people."

It's worth considering how busy you would like to be as you get older, suggests Colwill, and what activities might give your life some purpose - such as looking after grandchildren - and how you might maintain relationships with friends, family and neighbours.

Ask for help and support from your GP

Older adults may be reluctant to seek help. Fewer than one in six older people with depression ever discuss it with their GP.

"Knowing who to ask if you need practical or emotional support can help to prevent issues building up and causing unnecessary stress," says Gentry.

"Talking therapy can absolutely help," agrees Gentry. "When older people are referred for this type of treatment, they do tend to benefit - sometimes even better than younger age groups."

You may be able to self-refer for NHS talking therapies in your area without needing a GP appointment.

Stay active

Regular exercise, tailored to your ability, helps to lift mood and stave off mental ill health.

"It also has many other benefits, such as helping you maintain contact with people in your neighbourhood as well as helping to regulate your sleep," says Colwill.

"Keeping mentally active is equally important, whether that is by ensuring you keep up hobbies and pastimes, or by taking a course or learning a new skill."

Age UK has a variety of exercise classes, which help you to regain your fitness at your own pace.

Eat and drink well

"Trying to keep a good, balanced diet is also very helpful in maintaining good mental health," says Colwill.

Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and cut down on sugary and fatty foods.

Try to avoid too much alcohol and ensure you drink enough water, advises Richard.

Take regular time to enjoy, rest, relax

"It's just as important to give yourself time to rest, relax and enjoy yourself, whatever that might involve. A break from routine, for a couple of hours or a fortnight, can help recharge the batteries," says Colwill.

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