Depression and the elderly: How naturopathic medicine can help

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According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, depression is the most common mental health disorder affecting seniors.

While the criteria for diagnosing depression in seniors is the same for adults, oftentimes the presentation of common symptoms (difficulty sleeping, physical problems, exhaustion) are thought to be related to aging.

“Older people are not given the care they deserve,” says Jonathan Prousky, ND and chief naturopathic medicine officer at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM).

“Their symptoms are easily dismissed because of their age.  We need to take them seriously and give them time. As they get older, sometimes it is more difficult for them to express themselves.”

What families and caregivers should bear in mind are the causes that can lead to depression in the elderly.

“Often when a loved one passes away, their partner is not equipped to go grocery shopping or to make meals since they never had to take on that responsibility.  As a result, they suffer from severe nutritional deficiency/insufficiency, which can affect mood,” notes Prousky.

Prousky stresses the importance of looking at the whole person instead of just the symptoms and says that’s where naturopathic doctors differ in their approach.

“It’s crucial to look at what medications the patient is on,  whether there is an underlying disease process, does the patient have physical limitations or suffering from chronic pain, is there a medical condition that is compromising their ability to communicate – all these factors can make the elderly more prone to depression.”

When it comes to treatment, anti-depressants and therapy are often prescribed but there are also a number of naturopathic treatments that can help seniors cope.

For Prousky, diet and consuming nutrient-rich foods is key.

“In cases where you have a widower who can’t make a proper meal due to physical limitations, there are programs like Meals on Wheels that can provide that service to them.  I also encourage family members to go grocery shopping with their loved ones to show them what kinds of foods they should be buying,” he says.

In addition to consuming the right foods, Prousky also reminds caregivers to make sure the foods are being consumed properly.

“There are diseases and medications that can lead to swallowing disorders in the elderly.   For food and nutrients to be properly absorbed and digested in the body, take your loved one to a dentist to ensure there are no dental issues, or issues with chewing food. Sometimes a swallowing clinic is needed to evaluate a patient’s ability to get food from the mouth into the stomach.”

There are a number of vitamins/minerals that have been shown to have anti-depressant and mood enhancing properties including:

–    Magnesium
–    B vitamins
–    Essential fatty acids

Botanical herbs such as Rhodiola have been shown to have good efficacy for anxiety, depression and fatigue.  However, Prousky does advise patients to seek out a naturopathic doctor and to be cautious when taking botanicals since they can potentially react adversely with prescription medications.

From a lifestyle perspective, Prousky recommends taking melatonin to get a good night’s sleep and strongly encourages exercise where applicable.

“Even if it’s a 20 minute walk every day or every other day, no pill can provide the benefits that exercise does,” he says.

Naturopathic medicine is a distinct system of primary care that addresses the root cause of illness or disease and promotes health and healing using natural therapies. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) are highly educated primary care providers who integrate standard medical diagnostics with a broad range of natural therapies.