Isolation, made worse by sensory loss, can lead to depression.
| Credit: (MASTERFILE)

Isolation, made worse by sensory loss, can lead to depression.(MASTERFILE)Cathy Lowery, 50, of Western Springs, Ill., says her mother was doing fine in her assisted living home until she developed age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that causes severely blurred vision or blindness. Now she's worried that this health problem is making her mother feel depressed.

Seniors' health problems make depression worse

Health problems like failing vision and chronic diseases like diabetes do raise an elderly person's risk for mental health problems. "Physical illness can directly cause the symptoms of depression by causing chronic pain or fear of pain, fear of disability, dependence, or immobility, or a loss of self-esteem," says Kathleen Buckwalter, PhD, RN, professor of gerontological nursing research at the University of Iowa.

One survey of 2,300 hearing-impaired adults found that those who didn't get treatment were more likely to report depression and less likely to participate in activities than seniors who wore hearing aids.

Other research suggests that poor vision can contribute to depression. Surprisingly, depression can make AMD worse too. A 2002 study led by Barry Rovner, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, found that patients with AMD whose depressive symptoms worsened over a six-month period were more likely to also experience a decline in vision function.

There are also clear links between heart disease, which disproportionately afflicts the elderly, and depression.

Offer reassurance, recreation options

While it's not always possible to treat the health issue in an older person, there is much caregivers can do to reduce the fear, isolation, and lack of mobility that the health problem causes.

For example, Buckwalter suggests getting someone with AMD, who can no longer read, books on tape or taking them to a concert rather than a movie. An older person with heart disease might enjoy a book about healthy eating or a subscription to a health magazine to make her feel more in control at mealtime. "For some seniors, just getting reassurance that they won't be left to cope with their pain or loss of mobility by themselves can help," she adds.