Dr. Helen Lavretsky

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mood disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada and 24% of all deaths in North America are related to premature mortality (suicide).

The risk of having a mood disorder increases with age, uncontrollable changes in life, and especially with other illnesses and disabilities. Major depression, for example, affects only 1-5% of elderly living within a community but affects 11.5% of elderly hospital patients and 13% of those requiring in-home assisted living, and up to 50% of those living in the nursing homes.

What is a Late-Life Mood Disorder?

Some signs of mood disorders include depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, guilt, indecisiveness, worthlessness, anxiety, agitation, and even suicidal thoughts. Physical symptoms can include headaches, stomachaches, and changes in weight or sleep patterns.

According to geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Lavretsky of UCLA and the lead editor of Late-Life Mood Disorders, late-life mood disorders differ from mood disorders at other stages in life because they are more often related to medical problems and disabilities. Depression can be a symptom of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, although exhibiting depression does not always mean the individual will have such diseases.

Late-life depression is frequently undiagnosed because it is seen as a response to financial, social or disability hardships. While short-term emotional sadness or “blues” are a normal response to changes in life, debilitating mood disorders are not normal.

Aging: A Difficult Transition for Anyone

Late-life mood disorders can be amplified by changing circumstances such as moving into an assisted living situation. Dr. Helen Lavretsky explains that people “do not like to give up independence or being treated like children,” particularly as western culture places much emphasis on independence. When that autonomy is taken away, an individual can feel disrespected and undignified and as a result become angry with those who are suddenly in control.

Dr. Lavretsky states that “any transition to less independent living would result in potential reactions of anger or denial rather than acceptance and will require some help, counseling, or adjustment”.

Late-Life Mood Disorders: An Additional Wrinkle

Age has a tendency to sneak up on us. More importantly, physical and mental ailments have a way of catching us by surprise. Many times, those diagnosed with mental ailments such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease do not even know they are beginning to slip in their daily routines. Your parent may not understand why others feel he or she can no longer live alone.

If your parent has new onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, taking care of himself/herself may be the furthest thing from his/her mind. Your parent may already feel helpless knowing that he or she is having a hard time with short-term memory. These feelings of anger or denial compounded with a need for assisted living or additional care, and an elder parent may lash out at the ones closest to him/her.

Getting Help

Late-life mood disorders are not the norm in aging adults and if you suspect your parent could be suffering from this, it is important to seek professional help. Counseling for the caregivers and distressed parent can help to ease the burden of change.

Dr. Lavretsky stresses that we should “be proactive in being diagnosed and receiving counseling or appropriate treatment. Don’t deny symptoms as normal sadness, or normal aging, [but instead] go see a specialist”. It is also important to be “more mentally and physically active, exercise proper nutrition and take some supplements (fish oil, or vitamins B complex). Acupuncture, meditation, yoga or lightbox exposure can also help in reducing mild mood symptoms.”

Many resources are available to help a parent with mood disorders. Consult your doctor or look to facilities such as the Memory Care Center at UCLA or online Family Caregiver Alliance.

About Dr. Lavretsky

Helen Lavretsky, M.D. ,M.S. is a professor of Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA; and Director of Later Life mood, stress, and wellness program. She is involved in research on geriatric mood disorders and wellness using mind-body exercise (yoga and Tai Chi).

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