Depression: What Does Age Have to Do With It?

Merely Me Health Guide
  • We have a wide age range of members who come to MyDepressionConnection  for information and support about how to cope with their depression. We have members who are teens and we have members and writers who are in their 70’s and beyond. It has me wondering as to whether or not depression is experienced differently as we age. Or can there be more similarities than differences? Is it necessarily helpful to categorize people by “young” or “old” when it comes to dealing with depression? I am 46 years old as I write this post. Does my age make me the poster “child” for middle –aged depression in women? Must we segregate ourselves into demographics in order to find someone who understands what we are going through? Or is there wisdom to be gained from all age groups when it comes to learning how to cope with depression? These are just some of the questions I will be pondering within this post.

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    Since we are talking about age I am going to start off this post with a question: At what age would you consider a person to be old? Or let me put it another way, at what age is a person no longer young? Where is that cut off point?


    My personal theory is that "old" is always 10-20 years older than you are right now.


    One of my relatives is in his mid-eighties. You would never guess his age though. He is still working at his job as a professor, does yoga, and makes stained glass windows in his spare time. Age has certainly not hindered his ability to enjoy his life. In many ways my elderly relative seems younger than some of the people I know who are considered chronologically young. I asked him what it was like to be over 80. He said, "The 80's are just like the 70's it is just more people are astonished that you are still alive." When asked about what age he considers to be "old" he answers, 105. I laughed at having my age perception theory validated.


    How we view age depends on how old we are at the time of our reflection.


    When I was 14 I thought that my best friend’s sister who was 17 was so old. That age seemed light years away. When I turned 20 I mourned no longer being a teen-ager. Twenty-five seemed especially hard for me. At that time there was a Newsweek with a cover about Jane Pauley, and how she started on the Today show at age 25. I felt unsuccessful by comparison. At that time I had a graduate degree and working for a mental hospital but my workplace was a church basement. It seems silly now but I wondered, “What am I doing with my life?” When I was 29 I had my first son and then at 31 I had another baby boy. My thirties were a blur of taking care of my boys, moving, and coping with my youngest son’s diagnosis of autism. There was very little time for reflecting on my age. Now that I am in my forties I think about how lucky I am to be here. There were times when I almost lost my battle to depression. When I do think about growing older I feel hope. I have survived so much that I know I can do it again. I have ceased, for the most part, to compare ages and focus more on the present.


    The traditional “milestones” of adult development may be skewed.


    Most of us may have a vague recollection of Erik Erikson’s stages of both childhood and adulthood psychological development. Adolescence was defined as the teen years. Young adulthood lasts approximately from the ages of 20-45, middle adulthood ranges from 45-65 and late adulthood begins at 65 when most people are categorized as being senior citizens. These stages are said to be defined by the life challenges and achievements of these particular age groups. But does this model hold up anymore? Is it even relevant in today’s world? According to traditional psychological theories the milestones of adult development may include finishing school, getting a job, commitment within a relationship (usually defined as marriage), and having children. Yet due to a raging recession, sky high divorce rates, and an unprecedented unemployment rate, many people are unable to jump through these traditional hoops of adulthood. Other life factors such as chronic physical or mental illness can also affect these “choices.” For some, these markers of adulthood are simply not possible and for others there is a conscious decision that they do not want them in the first place.

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    We cannot assume that another person within our age group is going through the same life experiences and events.


    In many instances people are choosing not go through what some consider to be traditional milestones of adulthood. And in other cases we may re-visit these milestones at a much later age. Subsequently the way we view age and aging has drastically changed. Here are some other examples of this great variance in when certain life events may occur.


    Having and taking care of children


    In my mother’s generation it was not uncommon for women to begin having children as early as their late teen years. I had my first child at age 29, which would be considered “old” by my mother’s generation. I have a friend who gave birth at age 42 and then again at age 44. Someone dealing with postpartum depression, for example, may be in their teens, twenties, thirties, or forties. There is no set age for having children nowadays. Add to this that some women are opting out of parenthood altogether and some women who are past their biological age for having children may be taking care of their children’s children. It is very possible that a grandparent in their 60’s may be facing similar stressors as a twenty year old in taking care of an infant.

    Seeking romantic relationships and commitment


    In my mother’s generation if you weren’t married by 25 or so you could be considered an “old maid.” But in today’s world many people are putting off marriage all together or may simply live together. The person who has social anxiety over dating could be someone in their twenties or it could be someone in their fifties and beyond. In our culture of high divorce rates, there are many people who start over in the dating game. Issues of commitment, as well as emotional and sexual intimacy are not just issues for “young” people. Men and women of all ages can be dealing with these life challenges.


    Getting an education


    College isn’t just for people in their early twenties anymore. In fact the percentage of “non-traditional” students (those who are 25 and over) enrolling in college programs is rising exponentially. In fact the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the percentage increase in the number of students age 25 and over has been larger than the percentage increase in the number of younger students. For example, between the years 2000-2009 the enrollment of students 25 and over rose 43%. This is a huge increase! The stressors and demands of school are felt not just by “college age” students but also by older students who are often juggling not just school but a full time job as well.

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    Seeking a job or career


    In today’s economy many people, both young and old are out of a job. I don’t have to tell you about the sky-high unemployment rates. It is not uncommon to switch jobs many times over in our lifetime. Anxiety over interviews and new job jitters are common issues for all generations. Likewise, job stress  is not dependent upon one’s age.


    Can people of an older generation experience what are typically considered “young people’s” psychological disorders?


    The answer is yes. I have written about my experience in my late teens and early twenties with cutting and self-harm.  Yet this is not a problem that only young people face. In an article entitled, “Self-Injury Not Limited by Teens”  it is reported that older, middle-aged females and males also engage in self-harm including cutting and burning their skin. You may also think that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are disorders affecting only teens and twenty-somethings. Yet research is showing that women in their 50’s and 60’s can develop the symptoms of an eating disorder even past menopause. Age does not always tell us anything about what life events, stressors, and challenges that individual may be currently facing. Age may also tell us nothing about that person’s depression.


    It is my opinion that depression has less to do with age than it has to do with your unique genetics, biochemistry, and life circumstances.


    Age does not define how our depression will manifest or how we deal with it. The diagnostic criteria for mood disorders including depression are the same whether you are 25 or 95. If you are an adult, there is no separate list for depressive symptoms for your generation. Are there some different life issues and stressors for each decade? Certainly. But nowadays you cannot assume that those life challenges, stressors, and milestones are going to be the same for people who happen to fall within the same demographic group. When you begin to make assumptions about someone’s mental health needs based upon their age, chances are that you will be wrong. I once saw a cognitive therapist when I was in my late thirties. One of the reasons I sought help at that time was to hopefully overcome my driving phobia.  I was 37 and had yet to get my driver’s license. I also wanted to learn coping strategies of how to parent a child having special needs. These were very unique issues specific to my life circumstances. Yet this particular therapist branded me as having issues of a “mid-life crisis.” Not only was this categorization inaccurate, it was also unhelpful. If a fear of driving is a typical mid-life challenge, then perhaps I need to get out more. I wanted to receive help for my specific life issues, not be made into a stereotype based on my age.


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    There is no one “voice” for depression.


    There is a trend nowadays for people to categorize themselves into neat little boxes of labels. We see books written by authors who define themselves as the voice or the face of certain illnesses. But the truth is that one can only say that this was “my experience.” It is arrogant to assume that any one person can represent an entire illness or a generation. There are many commonalities between people who suffer from depression. Yet we all experience it in our unique way. Our age, sex, and cultural background do have an impact on our depression. Yet these factors do not always tell us anything about our unique life circumstances and how we have chosen to deal with them. I believe that a fifty year old is not immune to learning something about emotional resilience from a teen-ager. Likewise, I feel that it is possible that a twenty-something can talk to and find support from an 80-year-old who is also battling depression. When we needlessly pigeonhole ourselves and others into demographics, then we limit our opportunity to learn from another’s experience. Depression doesn’t care about your age, race, or ethnic origin. If you are a human being, you may be vulnerable to depression. Take away all the labels and you will discover that we are people first. Pain is pain. And regardless of age, we all have something we can learn from one another.


    We would like to hear from you. Do you feel that your age defines how you deal with your depression? Can you give and receive support from someone younger or older than yourself? Or is it important to keep within your peer/age group when it comes to discussing your depression. Do you feel that someone of a different age cannot relate to what you are going through? Let us hear your thoughts and opinions. What you think matters to us.

Published On: September 27, 2011