Depression Overview: Symptoms, Risk Factors, Causes, and Prevention

Pamela Cannaday by Pamela Cannaday | Licensed since 2011
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be struggling with depression, it can be helpful to understand the signs of depression.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines depression as a serious mood disorder that severely affects the way you feel and think. It often interrupts daily activities such as working, eating, and sleeping. Typically, a diagnosis of clinical depression requires that you display depression symptoms for at least two weeks.

Learn more about how to recognize the symptoms of depression, what preventive and treatment measures are available, and how Medicare covers depression if you are a Medicare beneficiary.

What are depression symptoms?

The signs of depression may be different from person to person, but they usually include some combination of the following symptoms, which occur for the majority of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks:

  • Sadness, bouts of crying, or feelings of hopelessness.
  • Irritability and angry outbursts, sometimes over minor matters
  • Lack of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Changes in sleeping, such as insomnia or excessive sleep
  • Listlessness or lack of energy
  • Weight changes
  • Anxiety or agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness

What are signs of depression in older adults?

Seniors may display depression symptoms differently. In older people, in addition to the above symptoms, signs of depression often include:

  • Memory loss
  • Personality changes
  • Physical symptoms such as aches and pains
  • Tiredness, lack of appetite, or difficulty sleeping that isn’t related to a health condition or medications
  • Wanting to stay at home instead of socialize
  • Suicidal thoughts, especially in older men

Remember that depression symptoms may vary from person to person. You may only experience some of the above signs, while another person may experience many or all of them.

If you or someone you love has the symptoms of depression, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible. If you believe someone is suicidal or may hurt himself or herself, get emergency help right away, and stay with the person until help arrives.

What causes depression?

No one really knows the exact cause of depression, but a variety of factors may be involved:

  • Biology. People with depression may display different physical changes in the brain.
  • Brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that occur naturally in the brain, but in those with depression, they function differently and interact differently with the brain’s internal circuitry.
  • Hormones. Hormonal changes may play a role in causing depression. These may occur during pregnancy and menopause, as well as fluctuations in thyroid hormones.
  • Genetics. Depression may have a genetic component. If you have family members with depression, you’re more likely to also suffer from this condition.

What are risk factors for depression?

Although the exact causes of depression are not known, the NIH has identified certain risk factors that may increase your chances of developing the condition:

  • Family history of depression: Clinical depression tends to occur more often in people with family members who have also suffered from the disease.
  • Severe trauma or stress: Major life changes such as divorce or a death in the family may increase your risk of developing depression.
  • Certain physical illnesses and conditions: Depression is more likely to occur alongside certain serious health conditions such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and heart disease.
  • Medications: Some medications may cause depression as a side effect.

Ultimately, depression is a complicated condition that may be caused by multiple factors. Having one or more of the above risk factors isn’t a guarantee that you will develop depression; it simply means you may be at a higher risk.

Does Medicare cover treatment for depression?

As mentioned, if you have symptoms of depression for at least two weeks, you may want to consult a doctor. If your doctor diagnoses you with depression, treatment usually involves a combination of prescription drug therapy with counseling and psychotherapy, either in an inpatient setting or as an outpatient in a doctor or therapist’s office.

If you are a Medicare beneficiary with depression, Medicare covers certain mental health services. Under Original Medicare (Part A and Part B), your Part A benefits cover inpatient mental health care services, such as care you’d get in a psychiatric hospital. Medicare Part B covers your outpatient care, including mental health evaluations, doctor visits, and psychotherapy. Keep in mind that Original Medicare’s prescription drug coverage is limited, and you’ll need to enroll in a stand-alone Medicare Prescription Drug Plan for coverage of most medications. You may be responsible for any applicable deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance amounts.

If you get your Medicare benefits through a Medicare Advantage plan, you’ll be covered for the same mental health coverage you’d have under Original Medicare; some Medicare Advantage plans may offer additional benefits, such as wellness programs or prescription drug coverage.

In addition, Medicare covers preventive services and screenings to identify signs of depression and help you get the treatment you need. These services include:

  • Annual depression screening exam, provided the examination is provided in a primary care setting by a doctor who can diagnose and provide follow-up treatment, or make referrals for additional care for your symptoms of depression. This screening is covered once every year for all people with Part B and is free if your doctor accepts assignment.
  • One-time “Welcome to Medicare” preventive visit within the first 12 months that you have Medicare, which includes a review of your risk for depression.
  • Annual “Wellness” visits after you’ve had Part B for longer than 12 months, which includes an assessment of your health and risk factors for conditions such as depression.

Both the “Welcome to Medicare” preventive visit and annual “Wellness” visits are free if your doctor accepts assignment; the Part B deductible doesn’t apply.

If you have questions about your Medicare coverage for symptoms of depression and its treatment, I’m happy to help you. If you want more information or need help finding Medicare plan options, request a phone call or an email with plan information prepared just for you by clicking one of the links below. To see a list of plan options in your area, click the Compare Plans button. You can learn more about me by clicking the “View profile” button.

For more information on depression and signs of depression:

Harvard Health Publications, “What causes depression?” http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression

National Institutes of Health: National Institute of Mental Health, “Depression Definition,” last updated May 2016, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml

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