Seasonal affective disorder in the elderly

Posted on: 26/11/2021

Falls and hypothermia are likely to top the list of caregiver concerns during the icy winter months, but older people are also at risk for some lesser-known health issues. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can have damaging effects on older adults’ physical and mental health. Learn about the signs of the condition to ensure your loved one has a happy and healthy winter.

What is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. SAD is sometimes known as "winter depression" because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is more prevalent in women and people who live further from the equator, where the sun is not as strong or constant.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • a persistent low mood
  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • irritability
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

For some people, these symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on their day-to-day activities.

What causes SAD?

It's not known exactly what causes SAD, but it's thought to be linked to shorter days and less exposure to sunlight in the winter months.

It’s not unusual for older people to notice symptoms for the first time if they start to spend more time indoors due to health or mobility problems.

There are several factors that contribute to the development of SAD that primarily link back to a lack of sunlight. Between harsh weather, fewer hours of daylight and the sun's further distance from the earth, people see less sun exposure in the winter.

Results of less sun include:

  1. Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for people of every age, but is especially important for aging seniors. This vitamin helps the body absorb calcium, which is important for bone health. Natural sunlight can provide vitamin D, so the shorter daylight hours of winter can lead to this deprivation. When the body doesn't feel as good as it should, it can lead to more depressive symptoms.
  2. Decreased serotonin levels. Serotonin is an important brain chemical for regulated mood. A lack of sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop and create a chemical imbalance that makes a person feel depressed. 
  3. Disrupted sleep patterns. Sun exposure plays an important role in regulating a person's circadian rhythm, which affects how well they sleep. The decreased sunlight can cause the sleep cycle to be thrown off so that a senior is not getting enough quality, healthy sleep, triggering depression.

How can you alleviate symptoms of SAD?

Many of the symptoms could be signs of other conditions or illnesses, especially for older people. Because of this, it's important to discuss the possibility of SAD or chronic depression with a medical professional to be sure a more serious health concern is not being overlooked. 

To treat SAD, light therapy is often the first recommendation. Seniors should spend some time outside when the sun is out when they can, or use an indoor sunlamp to mimic the effects of natural sunlight. Vitamin supplements can also help offset the effects of SAD. 

Most importantly, caregivers and family members should be loving and supportive with their elderly loved one to help him cope with the condition. Keeping them comfortable and calm can help ease their symptoms.

You should consider seeing a GP if you think you might have SAD and you're struggling to cope.

The GP can carry out an assessment to check your mental health. They may ask you about your mood, lifestyle, eating habits and sleeping patterns, plus any seasonal changes in your thoughts and behaviour.