People experience unique life events as they age. Death of loved ones, spouses, and friends occur more often in later life. Transitioning from being an income earner to being a retired individual, often on a fixed income, can be stressful. Many individuals develop physical illnesses that impair their mobility and their quality of life which can also increase psychological stress.
In addition, isolation is common in the elderly and has been shown to be a risk factor for negative mental health conditions. Research has shown that all of these factors make elderly people more vulnerable to depression. But the biological mechanisms influencing this relationship are still unclear.
To explore how stress affects an elderly person physiologically and biologically, and to see if this affect impacts risk for depression, Yuri Milaneschi of the Department of Psychiatry at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam recently led a study involving 948 elderly women and 1,027 elderly men. Milaneschi measured oxidation levels in urine samples to see if oxidative stress, a process that affects the immune system and lipid production, was higher in those with depression than those without.
The results revealed that cellular damage resulting from oxidative stress was evident in the 3% of men with depression, but not in the women even though they were more likely to be depressed. In fact, 5.5% of the women were depressed but no evidence of oxidative stress was present.
“The reasons for the lack of association in the present study between a measure of oxidative damage and depressed mood in women are unclear,” said Milaneschi. Behaviors such as smoking, alcohol use, and sedentary behavior, which are more common in elderly men, may contribute to the high level of oxidative stress.
Also, Milaneschi believes that hormonal differences and fat levels influence the way in which stress affects cell health in men and women. Regardless, these findings clearly show that oxidative stress could be used as a marker for depression in elderly men and could inform clinicians as to which men may benefit from interventions aimed at reducing other risk factors.
Milaneschi, Y., Cesari, M., Simonsick, E.M., Vogelzangs, N., Kanaya, A.M., et al. (2013). Lipid peroxidation and depressed mood in community-dwelling older men and women. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65406. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065406
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