Aging is the general term used to describe the physical and mental changes that occur when human beings reach and pass the middle stages of life. Some of the changes associated with this process are unavoidable; however, many of these changes stem from the effects of avoidable mental or physical health problems, not from aging itself. Older adults have increased risks for developing the avoidable and treatable disorder, major depression. Conversely, several modern studies indicate that the effects of depression can abnormally accelerate the aging process.
Advancing age naturally brings a number of changes to the human body. The Mayo Clinic lists common physical factors in aging that include a loss of bone size and bone density, a reduced heart rate and a potential for heart enlargement, a loss of muscle mass and a corresponding loss of muscle strength, slowed passage of food waste through the large intestine, urinary problems, tooth decay, gum loss and reductions in both sight and hearing. In addition, aging can produce mental effects that include a reduced ability to focus or pay attention and significant declines in the ability to make or recall short- or long-term memories. The specific effects of aging vary widely from person to person and depend upon a wide range of genetic and environmental influences. At one point in time, physical and mental disabilities were viewed as natural products of the aging process, the National Institute on Aging explains. However, that viewpoint has changed considerably, and doctors and mental health professionals now generally realize that older individuals can live for extended periods of time without developing many or most of the problems once taken for granted as “natural.” This is important news, especially considering the swift rise in America’s elderly population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the most rapidly growing population group in the country is people over the age of 85. By the year 2030, the number of Americans at or above the age of 65 will reach roughly 72 million, equivalent to almost 20 percent of the population.
Depression Risks Associated with Aging
Roughly 1 percent to 5 percent of otherwise healthy older Americans living in their own homes develop major depression, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Rates for the disorder increase to roughly 11 percent or 12 percent in hospitalized older individuals, and 13 percent or 14 percent in older individuals who require regular health treatments in their homes. Many elderly people develop depression after they develop some form of serious physical illness; others develop the disorder after they experience a general decline in their overall ability to take care of themselves or function independently. Despite the changing attitudes regarding aging and illness, some doctors still tend to view the symptoms of depression as “natural” when they appear in elderly individuals. For a number of reasons, elderly people sometimes share this sentiment. In practical terms, these attitudes toward the disorder lead to an unnecessary reduction in the rate of effective depression treatment in the elderly.
Aging Risks in People with Depression
In a study published in 2012 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, a team of European researchers examined the potential connections between depression, stress and an increased rate of aging. As part of this examination, the researchers enlisted a group of study participants diagnosed with major depression, then gave these participants both physical and verbal tests designed to detect elevated stress levels. After gathering this information, the researchers examined the DNA of the study participants for specific changes known to signal an increase in the speed of the aging process. After comparing the study participants affected by depression to another group of participants unaffected by the disorder, the researchers concluded that depressed people have higher levels of the DNA changes associated with advancing or accelerated aging. They also concluded that the presence of elevated stress levels contributes significantly to the presence of depression symptoms.
Rapid detection and treatment of depression in elderly individuals can help prevent the onset of the disorder’s most serious physical and mental complications, the American Psychological Association notes. Special treatment considerations for doctors working with elderly depression patients include potential restrictions on the range of available physical or dietary lifestyle alterations, a need to acknowledge and work with long-standing routine behaviors in affected individuals, and a need to avoid equating depression with an inevitable decline in mental or physical health.