Seniors and Seasonal Affective Disorder: Five Ways to Guard Against It
Whether you enjoy the holiday celebrations, the crisp air, or the coziness of staying indoors, there are many reasons to enjoy fall and winter. However, the change in seasons also means lower temperatures and fewer daylight hours. This in turn can dramatically influence our mental and physical health, and some might even start experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a distinct type of depression.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
In Seattle and the Pacific Northwest we get less sunshine all year than many other parts of the country. Combine that with long periods of rain and there are more than a few days where we find ourselves struggling for energy and cheer.
But as the Cleveland Clinic explains, SAD is more than just cabin fever or winter blahs. It involves persistent symptoms of depression that start in the fall and last until spring, and may worsen as winter progresses. Less sunlight can disrupt sleep patterns and cause a drop in vitamin D and serotonin—lowering sleep quality, affecting chemical balance in the brain, and negatively impacting overall health. All of these changes can bring on symptoms of depression.
People going through SAD tend to experience extreme and persistent sleepiness, increased appetite, and weight gain. It can also cause a loss of interest in activities, sense of hopelessness, negativity, lack of energy, social withdrawal, and frequent anger and irritability.
Seniors and Susceptibility to SAD
Seniors, in particular, may be more susceptible to SAD, depending on lifestyle, health, and physical abilities. As we age, we produce less vitamin D. And since our body makes vitamin D from sunlight, less exposure can mean a possible drop in good health and depression risk.
Some seniors also have a higher risk of falling and may not feel confident on their feet. To prevent falling, some people avoid leaving their home altogether, and this can lead to feelings of isolation. It might also mean that seniors avoid exercise, and inactivity often worsens symptoms of SAD.
Fortunately, there are actions you can take this time of year to combat against SAD and keep yourself thriving. Continue below for ideas on staying energized and improving your mood through each fall and winter.
How Seniors Can Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Try a light box
Light therapy boxes, also called sun lamps, are recommended by hospitals like Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic. Clinical-grade sun lamps reset the sleep-wake cycles that get thrown off by the longer periods of darkness. The clinical-grade light treatment also positively affects the body’s production of melatonin and serotonin. It’s necessary to consult with your doctor first before using light therapy, especially if you have certain medical conditions or are on medication.
Chase the natural light
Even the weaker winter sunshine, combined with fresh air, is better than none at all. In between rain showers, take 10-20 minutes to be outside. If your movement abilities are limited, consider scheduling walks with a friend or family member., This way they can help you navigate any slippery conditions that may occur.
Keep up with exercise and a mostly clean diet rich in vitamin D
As with non-seasonal depression, frequent exercise is critical to staving off SAD. Even just 30 minutes of walking, hiking, swimming, or yoga three times a week has positive effects.
You can also help boost energy levels by making changes to your diet. Eat primarily lean proteins and fresh fruits and vegetables, while cutting back on processed foods, sugar, and alcohol. You can also increase vitamin D intake from fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, and mackerel), fortified dairy foods, and supplements (consult with your doctor before taking supplements).
Mindfulness meditation is using the practice of stillness to build focus and awareness. This technique can help lessen both depression about the past and anxiety about the future. Even just minutes a day of a mindfulness practice can also help increase calm, strengthen connection to others, and build resilience. You can find guided meditations on YouTube, or you could try a simple white noise machine.
Stick with your social groups and hobbies
For some, this can be the hardest part. When feeling hopeless or a lack of interest, you might find it difficult to reach out to your support network. Even if you’re experiencing limited mobility, however, it’s important to stay connected to your loved ones. Try staying in touch with friends and family with phone calls, video chats, and asking for visits from those with more mobility and less travel risk.
While you’re kept inside, you can still engage in hobbies like writing, playing music, and reading. During better weather, make sure to keep up with your routine and your interests, whether it’s volunteer work, a church service, social visits, or group dinners.
It’s normal to have some winter days when you feel down. But keeping a close watch on your sleep and eating patterns, enjoyment, and motivation can help you catch SAD early or prevent it entirely. We encourage you to talk with your doctor and loved ones if you think you’re experiencing SAD, and work together to create a plan for thriving during the winter months.