Recognizing the Early Signs of Depression

 What is the difference between sadness and depression? It’s a complicated question. One way to look at it is that sadness is a normal, temporary emotional state usually connected to a specific cause, such as the passing of a friend, etc. In contrast, depression is an abnormal state with no specific cause and no time-frame of recovery.

So what is the difference between being “a little blue” and depressed?

As stated by the National Institute of Mental Health, depression can often go unrecognized “because for some older adults who have depression, sadness is not their main symptom.” People are unique, and many symptoms of depression may be present, like:

  • Feeling anxious or irritable, guilty or hopeless
  • A loss of interest in favorite hobbies or activities
  • Not being able to concentrate or remember details
  • Feeling chronically tired
  • Sleeping or eating too much or too little
  • Thoughts of suicide

It’s important to understand that depression is not a normal part of aging, However, it can be related to physical changes that take place as a person ages.

For instance, some older adults have partially blocked arteries that restrict the flow of blood through the body, including the brain. The result is known as “vascular depression” which can leave a person at risk for heart disease and stroke.

In addition, depression can also accompany other conditions and life situations such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Prescription drugs or supplements
  • Stress
  • Loneliness

Such situations can lead to both depression and loneliness, as it can become more difficult to establish new friendships and friendship networks as people age.

Getting help for depression

Because it’s hard to recognize depression, seeking help is not easy. One reason is that it’s often difficult for one to let someone know they’re struggling. Another reason depression often goes unrecognized (in a primary care setting), is if the person has other health issues.

If you think you may be depressed, you should:

  1. Talk with your doctor.
  2. Explain how you’re feeling.
  3. Share how long you’ve been feeling that way.
  4. Answer your doctor’s questions honestly.

Typically, depression is treated through medications, some kind of therapy or a combination of both. The benefits of therapy are that you can better understand that this is not your fault, what is going on, and learn new ways of thinking and problem solving.

Along the way, don’t forget to treat yourself with kindness by finding small activities you enjoy. Just as importantly, don’t make major decisions until you’re feeling better.

Understanding Antidepressants

Once you’ve taken the step to talk with your doctor about depression, make sure you’re open about these points:

  • Provide any family history of depression or mental illness
  • Share any other information, such as alcohol and drug use

There are different treatments for depression and the prescriptions work on brain chemistry that helps regulate moods. Based on your medical history and symptoms, your doctor may choose one to prescribe.

When you start taking antidepressants, talk with your doctor about how long it might take them to start working. Some antidepressants are effective in 3 to 4 weeks, while others may need 2 to 3 months before they begin to work. Follow all instructions for taking the medications, and ask your doctor if you can expect any side effects.

At the other end of the process, make sure you talk with your doctor before you stop taking medication. With some medications, if you stop taking them suddenly, you could experience side effects or your condition could worsen. Finally, if medication doesn’t work the first time, talk with your doctor. Research shows that people often try different medications before finding relief.1,2

1. Rush JA, Trivedi MH, Wisniewski SR, Stewart JW, Nierenberg AA, Thase ME, Ritz L, Biggs MM, Warden D, Luther JF, Shores-Wilson K, Niederehe G, Fava M. Bupropion-SR, Sertraline, or Venlafaxine-XR after failure of SSRIs for depression. New England Journal of Medicine, 2006 Mar 23; 354(12):1231–1242. 

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