Seasonal affective disorder’s effects more severe for some seniors

By Mary Andrews

When October rolls around the bears all disappear, easing their way into their dens. They curl up and prepare to snooze away the winter. There are lots of us who wish we could snooze away the days from October until April, too. In winter, most of us dislike the dark mornings and the shorter days; for some, the effects are more severe than just dislike, especially from December through February.

This truly is a medical problem. It was described in medical journals as far back as 1845, including a sea captain’s report in his log that his men could not seem to get their jobs done when they sailed near Norway in winter, but were energetic a week later when they sailed into a port in Italy.

True research into the problem did not begin until the 1980s. There are three names for this condition: seasonal affective disorder, winter depression and winter blues. While men can have this condition, it is seen most commonly in women and teens.

There are many symptoms used to describe this SAD condition. People can experience just the major symptoms or a whole list of them. They may:

• feel sad, lonely, depressed, hopeless, anxious

• oversleep but never feel rested

• withdraw from their friends and just stay at home

• lose interest in doing things they used to enjoy

• experience appetite changes, especially craving carbohydrates – chips, pretzels, sweets, pancakes, cookies, ice cream etc.

• gain weight

• have difficulty concentrating on processing complex information or tasks.

It is normal to experience any of these symptoms at one time or another. However, when a person experiences these symptoms for days on end it causes a major change in his or her life. If the symptoms last for days and days, the person needs to see his or her doctor. This is especially important if one notices changes in sleep patterns or if you feel hopeless and if the cycle repeats itself year after year.

Why does this happen to us? Current research is leaning to blaming a hormone the brain produces during the night which is involved with the regulation of our sleep. It is called melatonin and the amount produced causes the problem.

Years ago the medical profession would tell sufferers it was all in their heads and advise them to get a hobby or a job. This answer is partly correct because it is all in our heads.

Melatonin is a hormone our brain produces during the hours of darkness. It is involved in the regulation of sleep, body temperature and the release of hormones. People with SAD produce too much melatonin. This disrupts their internal body clock leading to depressive symptoms. If you feel crappy from October to March and gradually feel better in April and May, you may have SAD.

During spring and summer our days lengthen until sunup arrives at 5:30 a.m. or so and the sun does not set until after 9 p.m. We get 15 hours of sunlight. Fall arrives and the days shorten until sunrise is well after 5:30 a.m. and it starts to get dark at 3:30 or 4 p.m. We get just 9.5 hours of daylight, usually not even sunlight during these seasons. This impacts us all, some more than others.

SAD is present in high numbers in the northern latitudes of our world with as much as 9.5 percent of the population affected. It is not just the lack of sunlight, but high cloud cover can cause the same effect. In Alaska the estimate is that 24.9 percent of people are affected. In total, 36 million Americans suffer from SAD.

Studies by Dr. Norman Rosenthal of the United States National Institute of Mental Health showed that 1.4 percent of people in Florida suffer from SAD while 9.7 percent of those living in New Hampshire do. We, too, live in the northern latitudes.

People shy away from seeking help for this problem because they feel they must be crazy or they can just shake themselves out of it. Worse, they worry that they are depressed and, lord knows, depression is a mental illness and they do not want their medical record to show that they suffer from a mental illness!

However, what if there was a way to turn the situation around that was fairly easy. Wouldn’t it be worth a try?

You could leave the Northwest and move to the sunny South, but that would mean a major life change. You could go to a warm, sunny climate for two or three weeks to break the SAD cycle and soak up the sun’s rays. This is possible for some, but not for all. However, I do remember that about eight years ago relatives invited us to join them in Hawaii for a week. My body’s response to the sun and water was surprising and, when we returned, the effects lasted for couple of weeks. I would love to do it again.

After you have seen your doctor who may or may not prescribe medication there are things you can do to feel better.

• Educate yourself about SAD – why it happens annually.

• Get more natural light – sit near windows, walk outside on a clear day.

• Stay active even if you have to force yourself – take a walk, go to a movie, go out with friends, learn to e-mail your grandkids.

• Take a winter vacation in the sun. Go watch the Mariners get ready for the season.

• Try light therapy. You can buy a special lamp or a box light that gives off more light than a standard light bulb. It gives off 2,500 to 10,000 lux which is more intense. Sit in front of it daily for 30 to 60 minutes and it will provide you with enough light to replicate outdoor light and improve your mood. Lamps are available on line and at larger lighting stores.

• Laughter is said to help. Go to your library and check out old comedy shows – they will have everything from old Jackie Gleason shows to the “Golden Girls,” or try reading a Readers’ Digest or two finding funny jokes and uplifting stories.

• Join a Red Hat group – I guarantee you will laugh. Call your local senior center for more information.

• Eat healthier food – try a beautiful orange or apple.

• Minimize your intake of caffeine – even tea.

Above all, keep reminding yourself that spring is coming and this will end.

Yesterday, I saw pots of primroses at one of our local grocery stores. Buy one for yourself and put it where you will see if often during the day. When it is finished blooming buy another. Its beauty will remind you that life will be better soon.

Feeling SAD is a crummy way to spend the rest of the winter. Seniors, if you can relate this to yourself, step out and get help and get ready to feel better.

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