February 2, 2022
New year! New beginnings!
Same old cold, gray weather and long winter nights.
While a new year heralds fresh hope and various resolutions for a new, improved self, most of us can agree that January and February are not the best and brightest months on the calendar. In fact, the first two months of the year are when most people beleaguered by seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are feeling the bluest.
About 5% of Americans suffer from SAD, and while seniors do not statistically experience SAD more than other age groups, they have certain risk factors for developing it.
First, let’s gain an understanding of what SAD is – and is not.
What Is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that cycles with the seasons. Although a rarer form of “reverse SAD” occurs in the late spring and summer months, the majority of those with SAD feel its effects in the late fall and early winter months, when the nights are longer and sunlight is in shorter supply.
While most of us experience a day or two of sadness here and there once the holidays are over and the long winter sets in, SAD is not just the “winter blues.” It is a bonafide mental health condition that can last for weeks or months at a time if not treated.
What Causes SAD?
While scientists are not sure precisely what causes SAD, certain factors seem likely to play a role.
The decrease in sunshine in the winter months is thought to disrupt the body’s 24-hour internal clock, or circadian rhythms, causing feelings of depression.
Levels of serotonin, a “feel good” chemical in the brain responsible for mood, can drop in response to decreased natural light during the winter months.
A hormone the body makes in response to darkness, melatonin can increase with longer nights, causing lethargy, drowsiness and altered sleep patterns that affect mood.
Decreased vitamin D
Natural sunlight is a primary source of vitamin D, a vital nutrient essential to overall mental and physical health. Seniors are particular vulnerable to deficiencies in vitamin D and are, thus, more likely to develop SAD during times of decreased sunshine.
What are the Symptoms of SAD?
SAD shares many of the symptoms of “regular” depression, such as:
- Feelings of persistent sadness
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Loss of appetite
- Insomnia or changes in sleep patterns
- Low energy
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, guilty
- Withdrawal from social connections
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Some symptoms are uniquely associated with SAD, including:
- Overeating and craving carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- A heavy feeling in the arms and legs
Who Is at Risk for SAD?
- Women, who are four times more likely to have SAD than men
- Younger adults (ages 18-30)
- Those with a family history of SAD or depression
- Those with bipolar disorder or major depression
- Residents far north or south of the equator, where days are either very short or very long
- Those struggling with substance abuse
- Those with anxiety or eating disorders
What Are the SAD Risk Factors for Seniors?
Low levels of vitamin D
As noted above, seniors are more at risk for vitamin D deficiencies, thought to be a cause of seasonal affective disorder.
Restricted ability to get outside during the daylight hours affects seniors more than other age groups.
Reduced opportunities to connect with others can be especially difficult over a long, dreary winter.
Skin and eye conditions
Ultraviolet solar rays can be particularly dangerous to sensitive senior skin and eyes, making exposure to mood-enhancing sunlight risky.
How Is SAD Treated?
Despite the risks, the sun need not go down on hope for SAD. And for those who are aware of their predilection for SAD on a cyclical basis, an ounce of prevention can be a pound of cure, as they say.
Overwhelmingly, research shows that treatment for SAD revolves around four principal therapies:
As we’ve learned, SAD is not a passing blue mood. It is a form of depression that, for many, responds well to antidepressant medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s). Those with persistent SAD are advised to consult a doctor (preferably a psychiatrist) to see if antidepressants are advisable and to manage dosage and distribution.
As reduced sunshine during the winter months has been shown to negatively affect mood, greater exposure to light can be an effective elixir. Ideally, that light would come from the sun, so every opportunity should be taken to get outside on sunny days, if even for 10 or 15 minutes. However, such opportunities can be few and far between, especially for seniors with limited mobility. Here is where artificial light that mimics the sun can be very helpful. Much brighter than typical lights, broad band light therapy lamps trigger the brain chemicals that improve mood, suppress lethargy-inducing melatonin, regulate sleep cycles, and bolster vitamin D. They also filter out damaging UV rays so that users can safely soak in their beams for 30-60 minutes per day, preferably in the morning.
Regular sessions with a licensed counselor or psychotherapist can be beneficial to those struggling with SAD or other forms of depression. Various therapies that involve talking through emotions, circumstances and strategies with a qualified neutral party are available during darker months and all throughout the year.
Vitamin D supplementation
In addition to sun exposure (which can be particularly hazardous to elderly skin and eyes), vitamin D levels can be boosted by foods rich in this nutrient, such egg yolks, cheeses, fatty fish like salmon, beef liver, milk, yogurt, cereals and juice. Prescription and over-the-counter vitamin D supplements may also be helpful, upon the advice of a physician.
While we have several months to go before the sun shines late into the evening, there is hope for those feeling SAD during the dark winter days that are literally getting brighter by the minute.
Come See the Light in Senior Living!
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