Seniors and depression: A growing problem

I’ve written repeatedly about the growing depression problem which is striking every age group and demographic in America. There is one area, however, that I believe is unjustly under-discussed: The problem of depression among America’s seniors.

First, a look at the facts. Depression isn’t normal. It’s not standard with aging. But many of our seniors are depressed. Over 20% of those ages 60 or up are suffer from some sort of mental or neurological disorder. 7% of all of those of the same age will suffer from depression, and another 4% from anxiety disorders.

These numbers are compounded by two trends that are largely unique to seniors. First is declining physical health. It goes without saying that health problems occur as someone gets older. This, obviously, can lead to depression.

The second is social isolation. Seniors are often more socially isolated than other age groups. Physical disability, moving families and changing social structures can lead to this isolation, and loneliness is a huge cause of depression. It’s also expensive to the general public: An AARP study found that Medicare spends about $1,600 more a year on seniors who are lonely and socially isolated than those who don’t.

What does this mean? Well, like many other areas of American society, it means that we are going to have to adjust to an aging population. The percentage of the world’s population will double over the next 31 years, with those above 60 expected to make up 22% of the world’s population by 2050 (up from 12% today). Mental health must adjust as well. There is a shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists across the board, and this shortage is even more acute in areas like geriatric psychology and psychiatry. We’ll need to develop more programs that area specific to dealing with depression in seniors, and this includes problems that specifically address the social causes of depression, like loneliness. We’ll also have to customize these programs so that they deal with the physical challenges that many of our seniors have.

This entry was inspired by a meeting I recently attended on aging in the Lehigh Valley. We all know that America is aging. But what we aren’t discussing enough is how we deal with the challenges that this aging brings. This is an area which we must address better.