Key Depression Risks as You Age

While individuals can suffer from depression at any age, older adults are particularly at risk. Of the approximately 20 million people in the U.S. with depression, 6.5 million are 65 and older.

Depression causes unnecessary distress and suffering and may impair physical, mental, and social functioning. It puts older adults at increased risk of health problems and increases their risk of suicide.

While depression is not a normal part of aging, there are several explanations for the increased risk as we age.

1. Co-existing illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic illness and 50 percent have two or more. Depression often coexists with other illnesses, contributing to chronic health problems and making these conditions worse.

2. Medications. Many seniors take one or more medications for chronic illnesses. Some of these medications can cause side effects that lead to depression.

3. The aging process. Several biological aspects of aging may also play a part in increased risk of depression. Older adults who experience depression for the first time may be suffering from restricted blood flow to the brain (ischemia), which causes vascular depression.

Damage in the chromosomes of individual cells may also be a culprit. At the end of each strand of chromosome are stretches of DNA called telomeres. Experts at the University of Utah liken telomeres to the plastic tips on your shoelaces. They prevent chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, thus protecting genetic data. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. This process is associated with aging, although it's unclear if it's just a sign of aging or actually contributes to aging. Shortened telomere length is associated with depression and is related to a response pattern tied to chronic stress.

4. Lack of strong social networks. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 to 5 percent of older adults in the community suffer from depression. This rate jumps to more than 11 percent for hospitalized patients and almost 14 percent for those receiving home health care. Having a strong social network is critical for good emotional health-at all ages.

The good news is that depression is highly treatable in older adults. If you suspect an older loved one may be suffering from depression, it's important to encourage that person to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Treating depression will not only increase the individual's quality of life, but will reduce the risk for (and complications from) co-existing illnesses.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, EDD, MSS reviewed this article.


National Institute of Mental Health. "Older Adults: Depression and Suicide Facts (Fact Sheet)." Web. 27 September 2010.

National Institute of Mental Health. "Older Adults and Depression." Web. 15 June 2012.

Centers for Disease Control. "Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older." Web.  2 May 2012.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. "The State of Mental Health and Aging in America Issue Brief 1: What Do the Data Tell Us?" Web. 2008.

Lowry, Fran. "Stress, Depression Linked to Accelerated Aging." Medscape Medical News. Web. 1 March 2012.

Genetic Science Learning Center. "Are Telomeres the Key to Aging and Cancer?." Learn.Genetics. Web. 8 October 2012.

Geriatric Mental Health Foundation. "A Guide to Mental Wellness in Older Age: Recognizing and Overcoming Depression." Web.