UF Study: Some Illnesses, Life Events Make Elders Vulnerable To Depression
GAINESVILLE — Although common among the elderly, depression is not a personal weakness or character flaw, but rather a major medical issue and public health concern, a new University of Florida study finds.
“Bouts of melancholy or blueness’ are normal under certain circumstances, such as losing a spouse or experiencing some other kind of negative life event,” said Terry Mills, a UF sociology professor. “But you’re not supposed to be depressed just because you’re getting older.”
Senior citizens account for nearly 11 percent of the 19 million Americans who suffer annually from depression, an illness that costs the nation between $30 billion and $44 billion a year, Mills said.
Older people are more susceptible to depression because they are likely to suffer losses such as the death of a spouse, experience financial difficulties or be a caregiver to an ill spouse or family member, he said.
But the UF study also shows a link between increased rates of depression and chronic illness, which more commonly strikes the elderly, Mills said. People with heart disease, respiratory ailments and particularly digestive disorders were more likely to be depressed than people with any other illness, he said.
Although the study did not test for specific digestive ailments, medical literature shows a relationship between irritable bowel syndrome and depression, and there may be a link between chronic constipation and depression, he said.
“When we start thinking about it, if an individual is irregular, that might affect their social interactions,” he said. “For women, there might be some pelvic discomfort from irritable bowel syndrome, and for both women and men there might be some lower back pain making it difficult to get around or to perform routine activities.”
Unlike other illnesses, digestive disorders also increased depression in a person’s spouse, he said.
A total of 359 people were surveyed for the research in 1988 and 1991. The survey participants are included in a large University of Southern California data set examining three generations of families during the past 28 years.
The study also shattered a widely held belief that age alone increases the likelihood of depression. A greater share of the “young old” — people between the ages of 55 and 64 — reported symptoms of depression than those in the 65-to-74 age group or those older than 74, Mills said.
Perhaps the higher prevalence of depression among the younger group is due to their anticipated loss of important social roles and status and entering or preparing to enter retirement without the benefit of a role model for successful aging such as they had in earlier life transitions, he said.
“Old age has often been referred to as a roleless role,” he said. “When you’re an adolescent, for example, you can anticipate the roles and behaviors of being a parent because you have someone to reflect upon and see how they behave in a certain role.”
The results also raise important issues about the notion that attending church can be an antidote for depression.
“You might think people with a high level of spirituality and church attendance would have lower rates of depression, but with those between 55 and 64, church attendance exacerbated their level of depression,” Mills said.
Perhaps the “young elderly” are heavily involved in church activities, such as serving as ushers or singing in the choir, and find these additional demands stressful, he said.
Symptoms of depression include prolonged difficulty with eating and sleeping and periods of feeling sad, blue and utterly worthless, he said.
Carol Cober, senior program specialist in the health and long-term care section of the American Association for Retired Persons, said clinical depression is one of the most treatable of medical illnesses. “Although most older people feel satisfied with their lives, about one of every 10 people over 65 suffer from clinical depression,” she said.
- Cathy Keen, email@example.com, (352) 392-0186
- Terry Mills