Personality Profiles Predict Late-Life Depression Risk
> 4/14/2008 3:21:29 PM

It's an unfortunate fact, but severe depression often goes unnoticed among the elderly due largely to two false assumptions: the belief that persistent sadness is a defining element of the aging process and that depression is a young disease that simply doesn't make its first appearance in the twilight of one's life. But late-life depression often affects elderly citizens who've previously experienced no symptoms of mood disorders, striking when they most need the support and understanding of others and are least likely to receive it. In fact, experts estimate that depression affects twice as many seniors as dementia. New research reaffirms the fact that undiagnosed depression among the elderly is a serious public health concern and that personality profiles may be able to gauge the risk they face with surprising accuracy.

In the most recent study, performed at the University of Rochester Medical Center, researchers analyzed data from a 15-year longitudinal survey of Swedish citizens that began at the age of 70 and included in-depth mental, social, and physical health assessments performed every 2-5 years. The study came to an unsurprising but important conclusion: individuals aged 70 and over who were prone to chronic anxiety and feelings of distress and insecurity were far more likely to develop depression. Even though most of these individuals had never displayed symptoms of a mood disorder in their younger years, researchers believe that the aging process, in wearing down many of the mind's emotional defenses, left them more susceptible to the influence of their stress-prone personalities. As in younger samples, gender also played a role in determining psychological well-being as women were considerably more likely to suffer depression than their male counterparts. Socioeconomic status was yet another factor. Those who'd lived low-income or blue-collar lifestyles were more likely to grow depressed as they aged, and this trend most likely stemmed from problems with finances and related quality of life downturns.

Concern over the issue is heightened due to suicide rates that are 50% higher among the elderly: 6,300 American seniors take their lives each year. They may face a particularly pronounced risk of suicidal thoughts and actions if factors like physical illness, economic troubles or the death of a spouse play a large role in facilitating their depression. Those aged 80-84 commit suicide at a rate more than twice that of the general population, and the number is even higher for white males suffering from chronic illness. Mood disorders, of course, often occur in conjunction with serious diseases - particularly those of the vascular variety and others that seriously compromise one's quality of life. This late-life brand of depression is also more difficult to treat in most cases. Earlier studies demonstrated that depressed senior citizens are far less likely to experience full recovery even if they seek professional treatment (and fewer than 10% actually do).

How can seniors fight off depression? Researchers cite "close personal relationships, rewarding occupations, or meaningful hobbies, physical vigor and vitality, economic independence, and spiritual well-being" as protective factors, noting that individuals seen to be lacking in these areas were more susceptible. If an elderly relative or acquaintance suffers from a debilitating physical condition, lives alone, has recently lost one or more loved ones or has a history of substance abuse, he or she may be at considerable risk for a condition that will serve to shadow the last years of life - a time that should be filled with positive reflection and pleasure taken in the company of friends and family.

Seniors often need to be encouraged to seek help or at least look into the possibility that they may be suffering from depression, but a brief conversation could make a huge difference. The initial screening process can be as simple as filling out a brief questionnaire (known as the Geriatric Depression Scale) that's available online and designed to assess whether an elderly individual should seek help for related mood disorders. Treatment may be equally simple: antidepressant medications, possible psychotherapy and, most importantly, regular physical and social activity. No one wants to live the last years of their lives hobbled by the pains of chronic depression, and we can't continue to let the problem sail under the radar as it has for so long. Our seniors deserve better.

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