Depression in Older Age

What is Depression in Older Age?

Key Points:

  • Major Depressive Disorder is characterized by the following symptoms, five or more of which must be present nearly every day for at least two weeks:
    • Core symptoms:
      • Low mood most of the day
      • Much decreased interest or pleasure in most activities
    • Additional symptoms:
      • Weight loss or appetite change (increase or decrease)
      • Sleeping too much or too little
      • Movement that is slower or speeding up from usual
      • Fatigue or low energy
      • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
      • Decreased ability to concentrate and make decisions
      • Recurrent thoughts about death
  • When it occurs for the first time in older age (65 years and older), or worsens in this age period, it is often referred to as late-life depression or depression among older adults.
  • Persons with ‘late-life depression’ vary in terms of their prior history of physical and mental health problems.
  • This definition of depression comes from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM5).
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How to Recognize Depression in Older Age?

  • Though depression is common and serious among older adults, they often report fewer and different symptoms than younger adults.
  • For example, younger adults may experience more of the symptoms of sadness and tearfulness as compared to older adults. Older adults tend to report more sleep problems, loss of appetite, and slowed activities feelings of numbed mood and withdrawal (or pulling away) from activities that they previously enjoyed.
  • It is important to distinguish symptoms of depression from feelings associated with grief and loss, which can sometimes look similar.
  • Discuss this with your family doctor or mental health professional.

Click HERE to complete a depression self-assessment.

Older Adults Personal Experiences with Depression

Jane: Depression Developing After Retirement

Jane is a 65-year old married woman who recently retired from her 30-year career in finance. She is finding the transition to retirement difficult, with thoughts that she has lost a sense of purpose and productivity in her life. Jane described feelings of sadness, noting that she has been crying more often than usual. She had previously been active socializing with work colleagues, exercising at her local fitness centre, and enjoying cooking and baking for her husband. Jane described that for the past few weeks she has not had the desire to engage in these activities, and that cooking has become a chore for her. In spite of her lack of physical activity, Jane has lost weight, and reports that she does not feel hungry or experience food cravings like she used to. Jane is also having difficulty sleeping at night, leading to feelings of fatigue and a lack of energy. Jane recognizes that there is something different about her, and plans to make an appointment to discuss this with her family doctor.

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Bill: Depression Developing After Physical Illness

Bill is a 72-year old widowed man who has been experiencing ongoing difficulty related to prostate cancer. Since being diagnosed with cancer, Bill has stopped going out with friends for coffee and no longer has the desire to garden. He has noticed that he is more agitated when speaking with family members, and would prefer to be alone. He feels restless in the evenings and has difficulty sleeping, which impacts upon his energy level. He has started to experience thoughts about what it would be like to end his life. Concerned with these thoughts, Bill decides to share them with his family members.

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Download: Fact Sheet: What is Depression in Older Age? on our Fact Sheets web page.

Last Updated: September 2019