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September 21, 2015

As days grow shorter, and daylight becomes scarce in late fall and winter, 4 to 6 percent of Americans experience a form of depression called winter-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder *(SAD). Another 10 to 20 percent have milder cases. Many mistakenly write off SAD as the winter blues or cabin fever, but as a recognized type of clinical depression, SAD requires professional diagnosis and attention, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) advises.

Although SAD is more common among younger adults (75 percent of SAD patients are women, most in their 20s, 30s and 40s), it also affects seniors.

And seniors diagnosed with other forms of depression may have symptoms aggravated by the isolating effect of forbidding winter weather. Treatment for SAD and other forms of depression is especially critical for older adults, who are at greater risk of suicide than the rest of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While American seniors make up 12 percent of the population they account for 16 percent of all suicides—and white men over 85 are at six times greater risk of suicide than other population segments.

Other means to help seniors elevate mood and fend off the effects of winter and depression include:

  • Open curtains and blinds to allow in as much daylight as possible. Sitting near a window can increase daylight’s positive effects.
  • As safety permits, spend time outdoors every day. Even on cloudy days the effect of daylight can be beneficial. For the added benefit of companionship, as well as safety, a family or professional caregiver may need to accompany a senior.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that provides recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals to maintain energy. Limit consumption of starchy and sweet foods.
  • Get physical activity 30 minutes a day, three times a week. Again, a family or professional caregiver can help seniors achieve this safely with the added, healthful benefit of companionship.
  • Stay involved with hobbies, church and social activities and friends to prevent feelings of isolation that winter can bring.
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