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Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Senior Citizens

As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, many people experience what is commonly referred to as the “winter blues.” But for older adults, the winter months can be especially challenging. 

Seniors are more susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s brought on by the change in seasons. SAD is believed to be caused by a disruption in the body’s natural circadian rhythms — or the “body clock.” This disruption can cause depressed mood, fatigue and social withdrawal, affecting an estimated 1 in every 15 adults in the United States. People with SAD may also have trouble sleeping and may lose interest in things they normally enjoy.

While SAD can occur at any age, seniors are particularly vulnerable to its effects. This is due to a variety of factors, including social isolation, changes in sleep patterns and decreased exposure to sunlight. In fact, seniors are twice as likely as younger adults to suffer from SAD.

The good news is that there are several things that can be done to combat the negative mental effects of colder months. By increasing social interaction, getting outside more often and using light therapy, seniors can beat the winter blues and enjoy their favorite season once again.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is directly related to changes in seasons. While SAD can occur at any time of year, it most commonly begins in the fall and continues through the winter months. Symptoms of SAD include fatigue, trouble sleeping, cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain and feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Some people also experience irritability, anxiousness or difficulty concentrating.

For seniors, SAD can be especially problematic. This is because seniors are more likely than younger adults to live alone or have limited contact with others. Additionally, seniors are more likely to experience changes in sleep patterns and decreased exposure to sunlight. These factors can all contribute to the development of SAD in seniors.

How To Combat The Negative Mental Effects Of Colder Months

There are several things that seniors can do to combat the negative mental effects of colder months. First and foremost, it is important for seniors to increase social interaction during the winter months. This can be done by joining a club or organization, attending community events or simply spending time with family and friends.

Additionally, seniors should make an effort to get outside more often. Even on days when it is cold or cloudy, spending time outdoors can help improve your mood by way of fresh air and an active circulatory system. And if you’re unable to get outside for a walk or run, there are still indoor exercises that you can do, like chair yoga or Tai Chi.

It’s also important to make sure that seniors are getting enough exposure to natural light. This can be done by opening curtains and blinds during the day and taking walks outside when the weather permits. If possible, try to schedule outings and appointments during daylight hours.

In lieu of natural light, light therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for SAD. Light therapy involves sitting near a special light box for 30 minutes each day. The light from the box mimics natural sunlight and can help relieve symptoms of SAD such as fatigue and depressed mood. 

Eating a healthy diet  and maintaining a regular sleep schedule (the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep for adults over the age of 65) are also crucial for maintaining good mental health. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can help improve mood and energy levels.

The winter months can be tough for seniors due to seasonal affective disorder and other mental health issues. However, there are things that family members, friends, nurses and doctors can do to help combat these issues. By making sure seniors get enough exposure to natural light, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep, we can help make the winter months a little bit easier for them to get through.