Dropping Depression Levels Among Older Americans


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Know the risk factors for depression in the elderly, and get help if you or a loved one needs it. Photo by GinnyLynni, Image by Decoded Science

Elderly Americans have been less depressed lately, according to new research.

Kara Zivin, a researcher at the University of Michigan, led a team that analyzed depression rates in older people from 1998-2008.

The researchers were pleased to find an overall decrease in depressive symptoms in American above age 55. The most marked change was in those between ages 80 and 84.

To learn about depression trends, the researchers reviewed data from a survey that is considered a nationally representative sample of older Americans. ‘The Health and Retirement Study’ is a biannual survey conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Zivin’s team reviewed six of the studies to glean their results.

While the exact cause of the positive change is difficult to determine, improved recognition and treatment of depression in the elderly are likely explanations.

Increasingly, people understand that depression is a treatable condition, and they obtain the help they need instead of silently suffering.

Recognizing Depression Risk Factors

Knowledge about depression in the general public has grown, as physicians and family members alike have increased their skills at noticing early signs of depression. Recognizing risk factors, or circumstances likely to lead to depression, is key to obtaining intervention before major depression sets in. Late-life depression is a disabling condition that triggers poor physical health, so identifying older people who are at high risk for depression is important.

What Triggers Geriatric Depression?

Jeffrey Lyness, M.D., a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center, led a 2009 study to investigate likely triggers of geriatric depression. The researchers recruited 617 subjects who were older than age 65 and had no current major depression. Over a period of one to four years, the team assessed the subjects annually, conducting clinical interviews to determine how well they were functioning physically, psychologically and socially.

Aging Successfully

Poor health, disability, critical family members, and a history of depression can ignite a major depressive episode in one’s later years, but which factors can help people age well? Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, led by Dilip Jeste, M.D., sought to understand successful aging, with the goal of promoting the factors that lead to aging happily.

The research, which was published in February 2013, designed an assessment tool to review 1,006 older adults living in San Diego County. They began with 25-minute telephone interviews, and followed up with wide-ranging mail-in surveys that the subjects completed on their own. The questionnaires covered the physical, psychological and cognitive realms. They also asked subjects to self-rate successful aging, on a scale of 1-10.

The respondents, who had an average age of 77.3 years, rated themselves positively. The average rate of successful aging was 8.2. Interestingly, the older they were, the more likely they were to determine themselves as successful agers.  This finding correlates with Zivin’s research, mentioned above, that found lower incidences of depression among the elderly.

Foster Resilience for Successful Aging

Increasing numbers of older Americans are aging successfully. Image by Bordecia34.

Increasing numbers of older Americans are aging successfully. Image by Bordecia34.

The researchers in the San Diego study concluded that increased resilience and decreased depression led to successful aging. Resilience refers to the ability to adapt well in times of adversity, tragedy, or extreme stress. It is likely that resilient people are less likely to develop depression, and therefore those who are resilient are likely to age well.


Jeste, D.V., et.al. Association Between Older Age and More Successful Aging: Critical Role of Resilience and Depression. (2013). The American Journal of Psychiatry. Accessed on July 25, 2013.

Lyness, J.M., et. al. Risks for Depression Onset in Primary Care Elderly Patients: Potential Targets for Preventive Interventions. (2009). The American Journal of Psychiatry. Accessed on July 25, 2013.

Zivin, K., et. al. Trends in Depressive Symptom Burden Among Older Adults in the United States from 1998 to 2008. (2013). Journal of General Internal Medicine. Accessed on July 25, 2013.

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