It’s a word many of us tend to throw around without much thought: ‘I’m depressed because my football team lost,’ ‘He’s depressed because he got a scratch on his new car,’ or, ‘This weather is just so depressing.’ But true depression is a serious condition that can indicate even more serious problems. And, as with many other health issues, depression during the later years of life presents different concerns than it does among the young.
Some of the typical symptoms of depression – such as sleep disorders, appetite loss, fatigue, and feelings of isolation are conditions that many people simply associate with old age. Yet, depression among the elderly may also indicate other health problems.
In research published in the journal Circulation, a six-year study of more than 4,000 subjects showed a clear association between elderly depression and an elevated risk of coronary heart disease. Researchers don’t believe that depression actually causes heart disease, but the association is strong enough that they feel depression should be regarded as a possible early warning sign.
Needless to say, most mainstream doctors will quickly prescribe an antidepressant drug to treat depression in their older patients. But a recent study from the Netherlands demonstrates that depression in people over the age of 60 can often be addressed with a simple change in nutrition.
Getting the ratio right
As I’ve told you in previous e-Alerts, an increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression. With that in mind, researchers at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, Netherlands, created a study to examine how the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids might be associated with depression in older subjects.
I’m sure most of our regular readers are aware by now that the optimum omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 1:1. But because omega-6 is abundant in processed foods (while the primary dietary source of omega-3 is fish) the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of a typical diet is by some estimates more like 20:1; a ratio that has been shown to be associated with depression.
The Rotterdam team recruited more than 260 subjects with symptoms of
depression. Each subject was 60 or older, and 106 subjects in the group were diagnosed with depressive disorders. Blood samples revealing omega-6 and omega-3 levels from all of these subjects were measured against a control group of 461 randomly selected subjects.
After analysing the results, researchers found what they called a ‘direct effect of fatty acid composition on mood.’ Subjects with depressive disorders had a significantly higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. This is not a surprise, of course, but rather a confirmation that a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids may be at the root of depression, especially among older people.
A fine kettle of fish
Dietary sources like walnuts and flaxseed deliver omega-3 fatty acids, but only fish contains both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docohexaenoic acid (DHA). When combined, these two essential fatty acids have been shown to help prevent depression, as well as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, influenza, hyperactivity, and even some forms of cancer.
The drawback with fish (as I’ve also mentioned several times in the past) is the mercury content present in exactly the types of fish that contain the highest concentration of omega-3: dark meat fish such as tuna, swordfish, and salmon. Fortunately, fish oil supplements don’t contain mercury and provide an easy way to insure a good intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
No matter what your age may be, if you’re suffering from depression, or if you know someone who is, there’s another important nutrient you should know about that’s also been shown to be helpful in maintaining a positive mental attitude and feelings of well being.
In a study from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Centre on Ageing at Tufts University, researchers examined data from blood tests of almost 3,000 subjects. Through diagnostic interviews, the research team found that a significant number of depressed subjects had low red blood cell folate concentrations.
Folate is a nutrient in the B vitamin group, and is abundant in liver, asparagus, lentils, chickpeas, most varieties of beans, and especially spinach and other leafy green vegetables. A low intake of these foods may result in folate deficiency. Pregnancy, excessive alcohol consumption, and inflammatory gastrointestinal diseases may also contribute to a deficiency of folate.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate that you’ll find in most multi-vitamins. But before adding extra folic acid to your supplements, if you’re over the age of 50 you should ask your doctor to determine if you’re deficient in vitamin B12.
According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, folic acid intake sometimes masks B12 deficiency in older people; a problem that can lead to anaemia and may even damage the central nervous system.
As I mentioned in a recent e-Alert, many older people run the risk of over-medication. Anti-depressant drugs, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, blood pressure medications, cholesterol-lowering drugs, oestrogen, and tranquillisers can all strip valuable vitamins and minerals from the body. And when any of these drugs are combined – especially in an older patient – the risk of developing anaemia rises.
So if you’re feeling depressed – no matter what your age – remember that folate and omega-3 fatty acids may be two critical keys that can help get you back on track to improved mental health, without risking the effects of a prescription drug.
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Circulation. 2008; 118: 1768-1775, doi: 10.1161