Seasonal Affective Disorder in Seniors
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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also called SAD, is a form of depression. It usually begins in late fall or early winter, as days get shorter. It usually goes away in the spring or summer, as days become longer. For some people, SAD has the opposite pattern. Here, we discuss the type of Seasonal Affective Disorder that begins in the fall and winter, because it is much more common.

SAD has many of the same symptoms as other forms of depression. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad
  • Loss of interest in activities and feelings of boredom
  • Low energy
  • Changes in sleep, including insomnia and sleeping in too late
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Feeling agitated or irritable
  • Difficulty with focus
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Frequent thoughts of death
  • Thoughts of suicide

SAD can return year after year. For some, it’s as predictable as leaves falling in autumn. SAD has a few unique symptoms, including:

  • Oversleeping, especially as days get shorter and darker
  • Overeating and frequent hunger for simple carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Withdrawal from friends and loved ones

Some sadness is normal for everyone. Sadness that persists for weeks or months can be a sign of something more serious. If you or a loved one has persistent or seasonal sadness, it might be depression or SAD. Speak to a doctor if you suspect depression or SAD. With proper diagnosis, treatment is available.

Of course, if you or a loved one experiences thoughts of self-harm or suicide, speak to a doctor right away. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. This number is available 24/7.

The Causes of SAD

SAD results from physiological changes that happen when seasons change. These changes include:

  • Changes in circadian rhythm
  • Changes in serotonin levels
  • Changes in melatonin levels

Some people are at higher risk of developing SAD. Risk factors include:

  • Being female (women are 3 times more likely to experience SAD than men)
  • Living far north or south of the equator
  • Family history of SAD
  • Experiencing SAD in the past
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • History of major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or other psychiatric disorders

People who live further from the equator have higher risk of SAD. This is because winter days are shorter the further someone is from the equator. Serotonin and melatonin levels are connected and are both affected by sunlight. This means that shorter days with less sunlight decrease serotonin and increase melatonin, leading to SAD.

How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder in Seniors (SAD) in Seniors

The good news is that seniors are less likely than younger people to experience SAD. Seniors are still at risk, especially those who have experienced SAD in the past. Other risk factors for depression, such as loneliness and isolation in seniors, also increases the risk of SAD. The other good news is that SAD is treatable. There are several treatment options. A combination of treatments may be best for some patients.

The treatment options for Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

  • Light therapy
  • Medications
  • Psychotherapy

Light Therapy

Light Therapy is very effective for treating SAD. Light therapy involves using an artificial light that mimics sunlight. This light causes your body to produce chemicals that sunlight triggers, including serotonin. It also lowers melatonin levels. Melatonin makes you sleepy, so light therapy can also reduce drowsiness. Light therapy can ease symptoms of SAD, and help regulate sleep cycles and improve sleep in seniors. The lights used for light therapy are much brighter than typical lights, and filter out UV lights to prevent UV damage. Light therapy is also used to treat dementia, can regulate sleep cycles, and can even potentially help seniors with sundowning syndrome.

Speak to a doctor if you’re considering light therapy for an elderly loved one. Light therapy does not benefit those without SAD or other light-related disorders. Light therapy can cause agitation if it's used unnecessarily. Since light therapy reduces melatonin levels, it may worsen insomnia.

Some seniors, including those with a history of cataract surgery, are sensitive to light. Light therapy would not be appropriate for anyone with light sensitivity.

Medications

Medications used for depression in seniors are also effective in patients with SAD. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) can relieve SAD symptoms in many patients. If you’re interested in this option, consult with a doctor. Another option to discuss with your doctor is Vitamin D supplements. Research has linked Vitamin D deficiency to an increased risk of SAD. An in-home caregiver can help create a proper medication management system for your loved one, which will help them stay on track for what medications they need to take and when.

Psychotherapy

SAD can sometimes occur along with other causes of depression. The winter holidays can be difficult for seniors. This is especially true for isolated or lonely seniors. Loneliness along with shorter days and SAD can be a difficult combination to manage. Therapy can provide a good outlet to discuss difficult emotions. By working with a skilled provider, seniors can develop tools to manage SAD symptoms.

If you or a loved one is experiencing SAD, there is help. There are treatment options. Seasonal changes will always be a part of life, but unmanaged SAD year after year doesn’t have to be.

Resources

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder

NIMH: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Effects of bright light on mood in normal elderly women

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Low Levels of Vitamin D Can Increase Your Risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder

About the Author(s)

Ashley Krollenbrock has been a caregiver for her mom for 10 years. She has her Masters of Public Health and JD with a concentration in Health Policy & Law. Ashley has done legal work for two state protection and advocacy agencies for people with disabilities. She is passionate about disability justice, aging justice, health equity, and aging in place. Ashley blogs at themillennialmatriarch.com, and her goal is to empower families to keep their aging loved ones at home by sharing her story and practical knowledge. Ashley lives in Oregon with her wife and mom, and when she’s not writing or caregiving she loves to travel, garden, and hike with her dogs.

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