Aug. 3, 2010 — -- About 7 million people over the age of 65 have been diagnosed with depression, and many more could be suffering.
Dr. Marie Savard appeared on "Good Morning America" today to answer questions about how you can spot the warning signs of depression in an older person and what you can do to help.
Q: Why is this such a big problem for seniors?
A: Older people are much more likely to be alone, socially isolated or feel a general lack of purpose. Sometime older people have a much more difficult time acknowledging mental health issues. Of course, they also tend to have more physical illnesses. The link between depression and physical illness is much stronger and can be a vicious cycle, Savard said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says America's senior population has the highest suicide rate in the country.
Q: Is depression in older people the same as it is in young people? What are the warning signs of depression in seniors?
A: The elderly tend not to express sadness the way that young people do. Savard said older people who are depressed may have more physical troubles and may pay increased attention to them.
Early memory loss often causes depression, which can in turn accelerate memory loss. A patient with early memory loss and depression really needs to be treated for the depression to slow the memory loss, Savard noted.
A mood change also be a sign of depression. If a previously calm person becomes increasingly irritable, or a previously clean person no longer bothers to shower or clean up, that person should be evaluated.
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Q: How should I start the conversation? How can I tell someone I'm concerned he or she may be depressed?
A: Don't tell people of an older generation that you think they may be depressed, Savard said. What you should do is tell them you're worried about their health. Tell them they seem to be out of sorts, or seem tired, or unhappy.
Say you just want to check with the doctor to see what's going on, Savard advised. Once you've used physical symptoms to get that person to agree to a check-up, mention your fears to the doctor and allow the doctor to approach the subject of depression with the patient, she added.
Older adults -- particularly men -- see depression as a weakness and tend to be insulted by a diagnosis of depression, she said.
Q: What should I do after a parent or older loved one has been diagnosed with depression?
A: The first thing people should do is be aware that diagnosis is not easily treated. Savard said patients and family members must be prepared to try different ways of dealing with the depression, because the first attempt at treatment may not work.
Doctors treat depressed young people with a combination of medication and talk therapy, but antidepressants can cause bone loss and fractures in older people.
If isolation is a problem, make sure the depressed older adult gets more human contact. Be sure that the doctor rules out thyroid and nutrition issues, Savard added.
It's also important to encourage patients to stick with treatment -- even if they start to feel better. That's because there is a significant risk of depression.
Simple depression can be treated by a primary care physician, but a difficult depression might require treatment by someone who specializes in geriatric depression, she added.