Depression and aging do not necessarily go hand in hand. A survey of Californians ages 50 to 95 found that factors such as chronic illness, physical disabilities, and social isolation—which often coincide with increasing age—were stronger predictors of depression than age itself. That said, the incidence of depression is clearly higher in older adults.

Depression Prevalence in Older Adults

The National Institute of Mental Health's Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study, which focuses on several major geographical areas, estimated that at least one million of the nation's 31 million people age 65 and older suffer from major depression, and an additional five million have depressive symptoms that are severe enough to require treatment. Unfortunately, the disease is often undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or left untreated in the elderly and can increase the risk of early death and repeated hospitalization. There is also reason to believe that late-life depression can be more serious than depression in younger people.

Life Stress or Depression?

One reason depression may go undiagnosed is because of life circumstances that are common as we age, such as

  • the loss of a spouse, family members, or friends (due to death or geographic relocation)
  • retirement, which may be accompanied by a loss of status and self-identity
  • financial concerns; fears of death or loss of independence
  • social isolation
  • and medical problems.

Any of these factors may trigger symptoms of depression that are mistakenly attributed to life stresses and are not recognized as a true depressive illness.

Many older people who live alone do not have adequate support networks; some also do not know where to find help or are overwhelmed by the many resources that provide medical care, social services, and financial assistance for their medical needs. Older adults also tend to be embarrassed or reluctant to seek professional help for emotional problems, partly because the stigma of psychiatric illness is especially strong among people in this age group, and/or because they remember the days when treatments were less effective. In addition, friends and family often fail to perceive signs of distress.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 01 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 20 Jun 2013