Over-55s who suffer from depression are at increased risk of developing dementia, according to a new study from Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Researchers tracked 3,325 people for 21 years and found those who had experienced depression for at least three years were more than a fifth more likely to go on to have dementia. However, people who'd experienced depression but gone on to recover were not found to be at higher risk.
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More research is still needed to pinpoint the direct link between the two conditions. But these recent findings certainly add to the long list of reasons why depression needs to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
The condition affects around 22 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women aged 65 and over, yet estimates suggest that 85 per cent of older people with depression receive no help at all from the NHS, according to statistics from the Mental Health Foundation - www.mentalhealth.org.uk.
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It's a sorry state of affairs – but one in which we can all play a part in improving if we learn to recognise the signs of depression and know how to address them, plus when and where to seek help. Remember, depression is not an inevitable part of ageing: there are plenty of very effective therapies and treatments.
What are the symptoms of depression?
Depression is a complex condition – so the warning signs can be complex, too.
Psychological symptoms may include:
- a continuous low mood
- lack of motivation
Physical symptoms may include:
- disturbed sleep
- change in appetite
- weight change
The condition may also be triggered by a major life event, such as bereavement, retirement, moving home or physical ill health.
Of course, any of these experiences would naturally lead to a temporary change in mood – but it's important to bear in mind that they may also be a catalyst for depression.
So if someone you love is going through a major life change, do try to offer emotional and practical support.
Even if they say they're coping well, this may not be the case. The great British 'stiff upper lip' has masked many cases of depression over the years. One of the skills of spotting depression is learning not to take things at face value.
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How to raise the topic of depression
So how exactly can you express your concerns if you suspect a family member or close friend may be depressed?
'I think it sometimes helps if you don't use the word "depression",' says integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke (hildaburke.co.uk). 'Unfortunately, for some, this term still carries some stigma and people can end up feeling judged if they're described in this way.
'Instead, I'd suggest asking more general questions about how they're feeling, and mention you've noticed changes in them. For instance, they may be exhibiting a lack of interest in going out and doing things they normally enjoy. Try to explore why this is – and it might well lead to them opening up about how they're really feeling.'
Do try to remain patient and never be tempted to force the issue. 'If someone is being defensive or dismissive and you continue to press them, it will only serve to push them further away,' warns Burke. 'However, giving them some time and space to reflect may well provide them with the opportunity to accept there is something wrong and that they need to do something about it.'
Where to seek help for depression
If someone does agree to get help for depression, their first step should be to consult their GP. There are also plenty of useful charities and organisations that can offer advice and support, including Mind - www.mind.org.uk.
Lastly, do make sure you look after your own physical and mental health. When someone you love is suffering from depression, it can be very tough on you, too. Speak to a trusted friend or relative about how the experience is affecting you. Your GP will also be able to help, and can put you in touch with local support groups.