What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

fall season in the woods
If the senior you love always seems a little down during the winter months, it might be more than just the post-holiday blues. The long gray days of winter and lack of exposure to sunlight may be the culprit.

The APA defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a form of depression characterized by mood changes in the fall and winter months. SAD is more intense than the winter blues and those who experience it say it lasts about 40% of the year with January and February being the hardest months. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, SAD is more prevalent in women and people who live further from the equator where the sun is not as strong or constant.

SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by less sunlight hours in the winter months. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule. SAD is more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours in the winter. The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are listed below:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite; usually eating more, craving carbohydrates
  • Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., inability to sit still, pacing, handwringing) or slowed movements or speech (these actions must be severe enough to be observable to others)
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions, lethargy

SAD + Elderly, What Changes?

Older adults experience changes in sunlight more intensely and may also exhibit signs of sundowning during the winter. Symptoms of sundowning occur more frequently in the colder months due to shorter periods of daylight and longer nights. This can cause depression in seniors, especially those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia according to the Mayo Clinic. If the senior you love is exhibiting one or more of the symptoms listed above, it is likely time to talk with their primary care physician. They can help decide if it is the post-holiday blues or something more serious that requires professional medical treatment.

SAD + COVID-19, What’s Different?

This is the first winter that a pandemic will impact those with seasonal affective disorder which might make it even harder for seniors to cope. Because of isolation, decreased physical interaction, and little to no Holiday gatherings, researchers predict that people with SAD are likely to experience more intense symptoms this year. Feelings of loneliness and fatigue were less prevalent in the summer months because of outdoor social distancing and more sunlight but for seniors whose mental health has declined during COVID-19, it is smart to look for changes in mood. A study done by The Journals of Gerontology showed that adults age 65 and up showed signs of higher depression and greater loneliness, thus negatively impacting their overall psychological wellbeing since the start of the pandemic.

SAD + Treatment

If you or your loved one is experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder this winter, contact your healthcare provider or mental health professional to find the best treatment plan. The most common types of treatment for SAD are light therapy and talk therapy. According to Relias experts, light therapy benefits seniors during the colder months who experience abnormal sleep patterns, depression, SAD, or those who have dementia. Treatments for SAD are listed below:

  • Light therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Vitamin D

How Psych360 Can Help

Psych360 offers comprehensive mental health services to long-term care communities as well as older adults seeking outpatient care. If you or someone you love is struggling with feelings of depression or loneliness due to season change or COVID-19, our team of licensed mental health professionals is here to help. Contact us using our website, or give us a call at (330)-536-3746 to set up an appointment.

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