It has recently been brought to light that a number of older people who are experiencing bereavement are being misdiagnosed with depression. Dr Eiko Fried and other researchers at the University of Leuven, Belgium, questioned elderly volunteers and found that those in mourning were suffering mainly from loneliness, which can be a symptom of depression. This can result in them being diagnosed with depression despite their lack of other symptoms.
While the loneliness experienced by those who are grieving can sometimes lead to clinical depression, in many cases it does not, which means that a distinction needs to be made between these separate circumstances in order for the appropriate advice to be given.
The Problems With Misdiagnosis
The main problem with this type of misdiagnosis is that people are given anti-depressants that they do not need, when lifestyle changes would provide a much better solution to their problems. Bereavement leaves many older people feeling deeply lonely and when this happens, efforts should be made to withdraw them from their isolation before drugs are prescribed. There is also a chance that the stigma of a mental illness may have a negative impact on the misdiagnosed, which could easily exacerbate their existing feelings of unhappiness.
Caroline Abrahams, of charity Age UK, believes that GPs should direct those elderly who are experiencing loneliness towards local services “that can help people to stay connected”.
The Impact of Loneliness
While loneliness may not always be a symptom of depression, it is important to recognise just how powerful an effect it can have on a person’s life. Research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah, found isolation and loneliness to be as harmful to a person’s health as obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.
“Feeling lonely not only makes us miserable, it increases our risk of developing serious mental and physical health problems,” says Abrahams. “Families and communities can make a huge difference to the lives of older people living alone, particularly those who have recently lost a spouse or partner. This can be as simple as making time for older relatives and checking in on older friends and neighbours that we know.”