Changing seasons can mean changing moods. And as the days get shorter in the fall and winter, a greater incidence of depression may occur, a condition that has been identified as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seniors are not immune to winter mood downturns, but the condition can be treated if it has been identified.
Winter blues…or something more serious?
Occasional down feelings happen to everyone, but as long as the doldrums are temporary, they usually aren't a problem. Older adults especially can't be faulted for feeling out of sorts, since they are more likely to be going through changes in lifelong work routines, dealing with physical or health issues, or mourning the loss of friends or loved ones. Bouncing back from depression is the natural response, usually within a week or so of the first symptoms.
Seasonal affective disorder is different from general depression since it is connected to the body's reaction to the environment during certain times of year. Shorter days mean less exposure to sunlight. That affects the body's circadian rhythms and may lead to hormonal changes that can cause feelings of listlessness, irritability, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, less interest in social activities, and other symptoms commonly associated with clinical depression.
In cold weather climates, winter may also mean less time outdoors, which compounds the lack of exposure to sunlight associated with SAD. It's significant that SAD is more prevalent in areas farther from the equator --- and therefore with less exposure to winter sun. For example, only 1 percent of those who live in Florida suffer from SAD, while it affects 9 percent of those who live in places like New England and Alaska. Also, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are four times more susceptible to SAD than men, but the reasons are unclear.
Another seasonal senior health condition often confused with SAD is vitamin D deficiency. Sunlight is an important component in how the body produces vitamin D, meaning the winter months can lead to a deficit in this essential nutrient. What's more, symptoms of a lack of vitamin D include fatigue and a depressed mood, similar to the warning signs of SAD.
Here comes the sun.
Since SAD is a form of depression, it can be treated with medication. However, a fascinating non-chemical approach is light therapy, which seeks to replace the missing sunlight lost during the winter months by exposing subjects to a lightbox intended to simulate the benefits of natural light while blocking out harmful UV rays.
While a lightbox may be helpful in treating SAD, there's no substitute for the real thing. Weather permitting, regular daily exposure to sunlight on a walk outside may help older adults deal with SAD while also adding some healthy physical exercise to their winter routine.
The right diet can also help improve winter moods.
The benefit of sunlight exposure is increased vitamin D for improved bone and heart health, as well as a sunnier mood. But if winter precludes outdoor exposure, a healthy diet can also fortify the body against vitamin D deficiency. Egg yolks, beef liver, and fatty fish like salmon are loaded with vitamin D, and certain dairy products and juices are specially fortified with the nutrient. This is where a dietary program like MemoryMeals® can prove invaluable since it is specially designed for the needs of older adults and includes nutritional information that can help steer seniors needing vitamin D to the right food choices.
If the changing of the seasons has put someone you know in a funk, ask their doctor for a diagnosis to determine whether they need help managing their mood. Whether it's SAD or a nutrient deficiency, there are now proven ways to put a smile back on the face of those destined to spend the next few months with Old Man Winter.