While many fear winter for its unrelenting cold, others dread the season for another reason altogether: its endlessly dark nights and its dimly lit days.
Winter's relative lack of sunshine, unfortunately, is a common trigger for a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Symptoms of SAD include social withdrawal, excessive fatigue, weight gain or loss, and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, among other things. While most of those with SAD develop symptoms in late fall and see them continue throughout the winter, some experience the condition in reverse, with the worst of their depression arriving in the spring.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a person's risk for developing the disorder increases the farther north they live (in the United States, residents of Alaska have the highest incidence of SAD; those in Florida are least at risk). Women in general are also at higher risk, accounting for 80 percent of those with the disorder. The good news for seniors: SAD is less common among the older adults than it is among the general population. Of course, that's little consolation for any older adult who finds his or herself struggling with seasonal depression.
So considering that the seasons will change no matter what, is there anything one can do to beat back the winter blues? Here are seven ways for older adults to keep seasonal affective disorder at bay:
1. Stay active. Physicians recommend exercising regularly and staying physically active in order to relieve stress and pent-up anxiety. This could be as simple as taking walks at the mall, shoveling a little snow, or swimming at the local YMCA. The more you move your limbs, the better off you'll be.
2. Get outside. For obvious reasons, spend as much time as you can outdoors during daylight hours. Dress for the cold and take a walk in the park. Find a bright spot and soak up the sun. Even better: Plan to exercise (see #1) outside as well. Even if it seems like there's relatively little sunlight, anything you can get is bound to help.
3. Maximize natural light indoors. Pull back the curtains during the day and let as much light as possible into your living space.
4. Be social. Meet a friend for lunch, or go out with a group. Start a winter-reads book club or set a weekly date for backgammon. When you spend time with others you can talk about your thoughts instead of bottling them up—and feed off each other's energy to make the days more fun.
5. Eat well. Maintaining a healthy diet is essential to overall well-being, and that's especially the case when it comes to battling depression. The recipe is simple: Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains, and avoid the usual suspects like sugar and processed foods.
6. Try light therapy. Also known as phototherapy, light therapy—which doesn't require a prescription—involves exposing oneself to a bright electric light that mimics sunlight. Researchers believe this light can reduce symptoms of SAD through its affect on the brain.
7. Talk to your doctor. If all else fails, SAD can be treated with antidepressant medications or through professional counseling. If measures like optimizing your diet, spending time outdoors, or ramping up your physical activity don't help, consider making an appointment with your physician and discussing other ways to relieve your symptoms.
Whatever you do to fend off the winter blues (short of moving to a tropical island), be sure to make safety a top priority. When exercising outside, for example, keep an eye out for ice, wear shoes with good traction, and always carry a medical alert device that you can activate in the event of an emergency.
Looking for more tips and advice on staying active? Read these tips on navigating the gym.