Understanding late-life depression

The brain is the most complicated machine on earth, and there is no manual, but much is known about depression.

The brain not only controls physical functions of the body, it is also responsible for our memories, thoughts, emotions and behaviour. In the same way the heart, liver or lungs can develop medical conditions, the brain can acquire a mental illness.

Research shows that transmitters and chemicals in the brain change during an episode of depression. We also know which parts of the brain are affected by depression and which parts affect mood.

Depression is an illness that people can develop in late life because of the challenges we all face such as:

  • Loss of loved-ones
  • Financial stress
  • Physical illness
  • Increased isolation
  • Having to move

But, just because change is difficult, it does not mean you need to live your life feeling sad or depressed. Many older adults enjoy a good quality of life and are living happy lives.

More importantly, anyone who is feeling depressed should ask for help because if left untreated, depression can have devastating consequences.

Myth

It’s hopeless. I have been diagnosed with depression and I will never recover.

Fact

Older adults respond very well to treatment.

Who is at risk?

There are two broad groups of people over 65 who become depressed:

Genetics – it’s in the family

We are all genetically vulnerable to something. Our genes play a role in many illnesses such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Alcoholism

Mental illness is no different.

Some people are predisposed to develop depression (based on any combination of life stressors) just because it’s in their DNA. An older adult seeking help for depression with this history is likely to have experienced depression at other times in their life.

First time – late-life

These patients are a bit of a mystery. From a mental health point of view, they have been healthy their whole lives and never had any previous experience with depression. They have often overcome major life issues like immigration, poverty, divorce, bankruptcy or loss. Then, with or without a significant stressor, they develop late-life depression.

Disclaimer: No medical advice is provided through this site. More details