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Is Chronic Illness a Sign of Depression?

by Dr. Patrick Arbore, Elder Abuse & Depression Expert
February 22, 2013

Question: My grandmother persistently suffers from the flu and cold symptoms. Someone told me that chronic illness is a sign of depression. Is this true?

Answer: This is a very good question and one that adult children or family caregivers often try to comprehend.  What is of concern for researchers is the way in which depression occurs in conjunction with chronic medical conditions. Patients such as your grandmother who experiences chronic flu and cold symptoms often have a high prevalence of depression. The question as to whether the medical conditions trigger a depression or that the depression triggers the medical conditions is still being studied. Regardless of which condition occurred first, the important concern is that your grandmother’s depression gets treated.  Unfortunately, primary care physicians may give depression less priority as they respond to the symptoms generated by the chronic medical conditions. In a 2004 study in the Annals of Family Medicine, the authors suggested that the severity of the depression was associated more with quality of life, mobility and disability in depressed older adults rather than chronic medical issues. Studies in general, however, consistently suggest that depression is associated with declines in a variety of general health indicators for older adults. Earlier recognition of the symptoms of depression and subsequent treatment has the potential to improve the overall quality of the lives of older adults in spite of chronic medical conditions.  

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Dr. Patrick Arbore is the Founder and Director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services (CESP), a program offered by the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. Dr. Arbore conducts workshops and lectures locally and nationally on aging-related subjects. He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on suicide prevention, bereavement, suffering, etc., including a chapter he co-authored in the book, “When Professionals Weep".

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