Depression: A Treatable Medical Illness

The August 2020 issue of Focus on Healthy Aging from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, New York City had an excellent article about the various risk factors, and treatments for depression.

Here’s a brief synopsis of their findings:

In addition to the commonly known factors that can lead to depression later in life, such as loss of a spouse, cognitive impairment, and cancer, recent research has highlighted three other risk factors that you may not be aware of:


A recent study of 1,800 stroke survivors with a mean age of 65 showed that depression in stroke survivors can persist up to a year after their stroke.  The American Heart Association recommends that stroke survivors be screened for depression because one in three stroke survivors develops the condition.  If you have suffered a stroke and haven’t been screened for depression, discuss this with your doctor.

Minor Hearing Loss

Surprisingly, even minor hearing loss may raise the risk for depression in older age.   Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing  mild hearing loss.

Impending Surgery

Understandably, the fear of an upcoming complex surgery and how painful the recovery might be can be a trigger for depression in older adults.  They might wonder if they will regain their previous level of function, and feel anxious about having to take strong pain-relievers that have been linked to dependency.  Yet another important conversation to have with your doctor.

How Depression Can Impact Your Overall Health

Many older adults don’t realize that depression increases the risk for other severe illnesses.   It can double the risk of developing dementia and heart disease, and it increases the risk of dying from another disease.

Treating Depression

Treatment for depression is most successful if it combines psychotherapy and medications.  Psychotherapy includes, among other treatment approaches, cognitive behavioral therapy.

The good news is that  there is evidence that older adults often have better treatment compliance, lower dropout rates, and more positive responses to psychotherapy than younger patients.

Lifestyle Strategies

Even though depression can lower your motivation to exercise and eat well, both may be beneficial for easing depressive symptoms.  Aerobic exercise, like walking or swimming, is especially helpful.   Group exercise or walking groups are wonderful because of the social interactions, which can also help with depression.  As far as diet goes, one study suggested that older adults that followed the DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diet were 11% less likely to become depressed over time than those who did not adhere to the diet.  The DASH diet prioritizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.

Don’t Suffer in Silence

If you feel like you may be depressed, it is imperative that you address this with you doctor.  Older adults may be more reluctant to report having a chronically low mood, possibly for cultural and generational reasons. However, the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” adage is often not possible.  Depression is a chronic medical illness in the same way that hypertension and diabetes are, and it should be treated as aggressively as any other medical illness.

If you suspect that you may be suffering from depression, inform your doctor so that you can be evaluated.  This could be an important step for you to lighten up your life.


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