A handsome couple had just finished a vigorous day of skiing when I caught up with them at the lodge. Faces lustrous, Don and Myrna Hoffman of Newton, Mass., confirmed what research shows: an active, healthy lifestyle is good for your mood at any age. "I see a lot of depression out there," says Don, who is 67. "Many of my retired friends haven't quite figured out what to do with themselves." He and Myrna, 66, agree they are fortunate, but they have worked to nurture their contentment. Besides staying physically active, they keep up with their children and grandchildren, and they continue to work part time.
If only we all fared so well. Nationwide, nearly a third of people over 65 experience some form of depression. And though seniors make up only 10 percent of the population, they account for 20 percent of all suicides. The reasons are not hard to fathom. Age steals our friends and our health, while diminishing our social standing. And some of us think back on life with more regret than pride. The aging brain is also a factor--researchers believe seniors are more prone to "vascular depression," a condition in which interrupted blood flow causes subtle damage to nerve pathways involved in mood and motivation.
Does this mean we should accept low mood as a normal part of aging? Not at all. The challenge, as I see it, is not to get used to feeling lousy but to take practical steps to feel better. The first step is to recognize depression when it settles in on us. Especially later in life, constant sadness is not the only form it can take. A sufferer may simply become apathetic, fearful or withdrawn. She may experience vague medical complaints or grow preoccupied with death. Dismissing such problems as normal symptoms of age only tightens their grip on us. A man of 75 with coronary disease, who complains of fatigue and doesn't enjoy watching a ball game like he used to, has more than a heart problem. He is struggling with depression and should be treated.
Acknowledging depression may not banish it from your life. But the condition is less daunting when recognized for what it is--not a direct consequence of adverse events but one possible response to them. How can we make adversity less depressing? One trick is simply to stay busy. Having more time is one of the privileges of age, but you'll feel better if you demand more of yourself. So stay as active--physically and mentally--as your health allows. Even small increases in activity can boost your mood significantly. Don't pass up the satisfaction of making yourself useful.
A second key is to stay connected. If retirement leaves you feeling isolated, join a community group or religious organization. And find ways to talk about the meaning of your life. It's hard to recognize your own value and integrity at any age when you keep it all in your head. Friends and family can provide an outlet, but sometimes it is easier to turn to a professional counselor or psychotherapist. Not everyone can be as lucky as the Hoffmans--but with effort and the right help, almost anyone can feel as lucky.