The winter holidays are a joyful part of the year for most people. Meaningful traditions, delicious food, and quality time spent with friends and loved ones make this time merry and bright. But for some older adults, the holidays are not all cheer and glad tidings. In fact, it can be a time of sadness and tremendous loneliness.

While during this season, it is common for seniors to miss loved ones who live far away or have passed, feelings of sadness that seem to recur each year around this same time could be more than just normal holiday blues.

Are you SAD?

A condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short, affects more than 3 million adults in the United States. Also called seasonal depression, SAD is classified in the medical community as a “mood disorder” and is characterized by a period of depression that recurs each year, most commonly beginning during the fall or winter months and resolving by springtime.

>> Learn more about SAD

Symptoms of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder is more serious than just the “winter blues” and should not be ignored. In fact, it is a subtype of major depression and shares many of the same symptoms. Here is what to look for in yourself or in others:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Irritability and/or problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having trouble sleeping (insomnia) or sleeping too much
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Weight or appetite changes (an increase or decrease)

What are the causes?

The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is unclear to doctors, but they believe the following factors may contribute to the condition:

Circadian rhythms: There are fewer hours of sunlight in fall and winter, which may disrupt the body’s internal clock, leading to feelings of depression.

Melatonin levels: Melatonin impacts the body’s sleep patterns and mood. Changes in sunlight can also disrupt melatonin production, resulting in an imbalanced level.

Serotonin levels: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (chemical in the brain) that regulates mood. A drop in production, which can be caused by reduced exposure to sunlight, may play a role in SAD.

Don’t suffer: there are treatments

It is normal to have some days where you feel down or sad, but do not ignore prolonged feelings of sadness or tell yourself that you should be able to “tough it out.” There are several treatment options for people who are suffering from SAD. The first step is to make an appointment with your primary senior care physician and discuss with them how you are feeling. He or she may refer you to a counselor for therapy. Other treatments include light therapy (phototherapy) or medications.

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