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Definition

Sometimes when people feel sad, they say they are "depressed." But depression is more than just feeling sad. It's a medical illness. Someone who has "major" depression has most or all of the symptoms listed in the box below nearly every day, all day, for 2 weeks or longer.

Symptoms

  • No interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
  • Feeling sad or numb
  • Crying easily or for no reason
  • Feeling slowed down or feeling restless and irritable
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Change in appetite; unintended change in weight
  • Trouble recalling things, concentrating or making decisions
  • Headaches, backaches or digestive problems
  • Problems sleeping, or wanting to sleep all of the time
  • Feeling tired all of the time
  • Thoughts about death or suicide

Causes

Your body contains chemicals that help control your moods. When you don't have enough of these chemicals or when your brain doesn't respond to them properly, you may become depressed. Depression can be genetic (meaning it can run in families). Abusing drugs or alcohol can also lead to depression. Some medical problems and medications can lead to depression.

Depression is not a normal part of growing older, but it is common in adults age 65 and over. Retirement, health problems and the loss of loved ones are things that happen to older adults. Feeling sad at these times is normal. But if these feelings persist and keep you from your usual activities, you should talk to your doctor.

Why is depression in older adults hard to recognize?

It can be hard to tell the difference between depression and illnesses such as dementia. Also, older adults may not talk to their doctor about their sad or anxious feelings because they are embarrassed. But depression is nothing to be embarrassed about. It is not a personal weakness. It's a medical illness that can be treated.

Diagnosis

Sometimes depression is first recognized by friends or family members. If you're having symptoms of depression, be sure to tell your doctor. Don't assume he or she will be able to tell that you are depressed just by looking at you. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, your health and your family's history of health problems. He or she may also give you an exam and do some tests. It is also important to tell your doctor about any medicines that you are taking.

Treatment

Depression can be treated with medicine or counseling, or with both. These treatments are very effective. Medicine may be particularly important for severe depression. Talk to your doctor about the right treatment for you.

What if my doctor prescribes medicine?

Medicines used to treat depression are called antidepressants. They correct the chemical imbalance in your brain that causes depression. These medicines usually work very well, but they may have some side effects. The side effects typically decrease with time. Antidepressants can start to work right away, but it may take 6 to 8 weeks before you see the full benefit. Don't stop taking the medicine without checking with your doctor first.

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