Spanish researchers have shown that there is a high probability that depressive problems become chronic in the elderly. The results indicate that persistent depression is mainly related to feelings of loneliness at this stage of life.
There is an important debate about whether people are sadder, depressed or reluctant in old age. On the one hand, it is said that older people are more resistant to the ‘hardships’ of life, given their long experience. And on the other, that the accumulation of highly stressful experiences in old age, such as the death of family and friends and the management of chronic diseases, could lead to a greater propensity to feel sad and melancholic.
In a recent study, researchers in the Department of Psychiatry at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) and the Center for Biomedical Research in Mental Health Network (CIBERSAM) have confirmed the high probability that older people experiencing depression problems (understood as an episode of high depressive symptoms) repeat or maintain these problems over time.
The work was carried out on a sample of more than 40,000 people over 65, from 11 general population cohorts around the world, specifically from 15 European countries, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Mexico.
“The participants were surveyed over time on sociodemographic aspects, health problems and socio-emotional factors, such as life habits and depressive symptoms. The research included an 18-year follow-up, under a robust statistical method,” says Alejandro de la Torre Luque, a researcher who led the study.
The results, published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, highlight that most people are resistant to everyday experiences and do not react with high depressive symptoms.
“Around 5% of the participants showed at least one episode of depressive symptoms. There was a 27% chance that the depressive episode would be repeated at a later time of follow-up, usually at two years. In other words, in one of four people with a depressive episode this persisted at the next moment of follow-up,” the authors detail.
Loneliness: the greatest predictor
Loneliness mainly, but also the presence of sleep problems and chronic fatigue, were the predictors with the greatest effect in showing a depressive episode and its persistence. Losing a partner was also an important predictor to explain the occurrence of the episode of high depressive symptoms, although not for its persistence.
“This work has important implications for developing therapeutic proposals towards specific factors, such as loneliness, sleep problems, etc., that can be modified and lead to reduce and eliminate depressive symptoms in the elderly,” the authors say.
“In this sense – they add – we advocate for a greater awareness of social agents in the importance of providing the elderly with efficient strategies to deal with loneliness, given its high negative impact.”