mental health in seniors reflections

Mental Health in Seniors: Common Issues, Risks, and Tips

Over 20% of adults aged 55 years and older experience some form of mental health concern, according to The Institute of Medicine. Research from the Patient Access Network adds that an estimated 63% of seniors with mental health issues do not receive the treatment or services they need.

The aging population is one of the fastest-growing demographics in the United States. The number of adults over 65 has increased by 33% over the past ten years, and the number of individuals 85 years old and over is projected to rise 129% by 2040.

Even in the next ten years, the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau reports, the older population will expand until one in every five residents is over 65, and the number of seniors exceeds the number of children in the country.

Mental health is important at any age, but with the senior population getting larger and mental health problems in older adults consistently under-identified and misdiagnosed by seniors and healthcare professionals, the problems facing the elderly are urgent and relevant.

To understand the most common mental health in seniors, risk factors associated with these issues, and tips to help you or your senior loved one handle them, continue reading.

Risk Factors for Mental Health Disorders

Mental health in seniors can have serious impacts on the physical health and well-being of individuals who are affected. Some risk factors include:

  • Interference with life activities, such as eating, working, housework, or sustaining personal relationships.
  • Poor physical health. Those who suffer from frequent mental disorders are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking or not getting enough exercise, or drinking heavily.
  • Higher risk of diabetes, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, and other co-occuring conditions associated with disability and early mortality. This can lead to a spiralling decline in physical, cognitive, and psychological health.
  • Suicide attempts.

What Causes Depression in Older Adults?

Depression is the single most common mental health issue faced by the elderly, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Although the rate of adults who experience depression tends to increase with age, depression is not considered a normal part of getting older. Some feelings of sadness can be a natural part of aging, of course. But clinical depression, defined by a persistent depressive state that significantly impairs daily life, is a mood disorder — and, in 80% of cases, it is treatable.

On the other hand, untreated depression can actually worsen other health conditions, including physical conditions.

Depression is a complex disease. The causes can be variable and are often not well-understood. Genetics can increase the risk of depression, as can many of the circumstances that are inherent to aging, like loss, illness, certain medications, isolation, and major life events. 

What Causes Anxiety in Seniors?

Anxiety is another one of the most prevalent issues in mental health in seniors, following depression. It is thought to be just as common among the elderly as it is among younger age groups, although when and how it manifests in older adults is distinctly different. Furthermore, as seniors are far less likely to self-report psychiatric symptoms, the condition is not nearly as well-understood in their age group.

Certain anxious feelings are normal, and the aging process can be stressful. Nevertheless, if you or your loved one is experiencing feelings of worry or fear most of the time, being kept awake at night by such feelings, or struggling to do things during the day, there may be a more serious anxiety problem.

There are different types of anxiety problems, such as:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Stressful or traumatic events, alcohol, medications, or caffeine, family history of anxiety problems, other psychiatric or medical issues are all potential causes for anxiety.

What Are the Signs of Dementia in the Elderly?

Dementia is a general term for a group of conditions characterized by a decline in memory, cognitive function, judgment, language ability, and ability to perform daily tasks.

It can be chronic or progressive, includes specific diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and is more common as people get older (as many as 7% of adults over sixty may experience some symptoms of dementia — for perspective, that’s more than 5.2 million people as of 2019).

However, like depression and anxiety, dementia is not considered a normal part of aging. It is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells connecting to the brain.

Memory loss, poor judgement, impaired speech, repeating questions, difficulty handling money, acting impulsively, and getting lost in a familiar area can all be warning signs of dementia.

What Can You Do?

Mental health in seniors is unique, and best handled by a professional. If you are a senior experiencing mental health issues, try to remember that your conditions are likely treatable. Communicating your symptoms clearly to your healthcare provider is key; for immediate help, visit the NIMH Help for Mental Illness page.

If you think a senior loved one may be struggling with their mental health, sometimes lowering their stress by helping with things like transportation and daily chores can be a good first step. Again, however, the help of a medical professional is the best solution. Offer to go with your loved one, and help them overcome the stigma of discussing their mental health.

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