Mental Health in Older Adults

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 20% of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern. The most common conditions among older adults include anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders (depression or bipolar disorder).



Studies show that anxiety disorders effect up to 15 percent of the senior population each year. In fact, anxiety is more common in the elderly than depression. While anxiety tends to decline with age, there is little research of the disorder in the elderly. For the most part, anxiety in seniors is often thought of as a normal part of aging and is left untreated. Furthermore, the elderly are reluctant to talk about their feelings to their families or physicians.

Generally speaking, seniors have many reasons to feel anxious. They experience more loss, are concerned about outliving their savings, begin a decline in health, and worry about becoming a burden to their families. However, a constant state of mental stress can impact a senior’s quality of life. Sleep and nutrition may be disrupted which can trigger depression, substance abuse, or other mental disorders. Furthermore, excessive nervousness can cause an elderly adult to limit their activities and lead to social isolation.

Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive impairment is when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday
life. Cognitive impairment ranges from mild (MCI) to severe (Alzheimer’s disease/dementia). With mild impairment, people may begin to notice changes in cognitive functions but are still able to do their everyday activities. Severe levels of impairment can lead to losing the ability to understand the meaning or importance of something, and the ability to talk or write. This eventually results in the inability to live independently. Many health conditions common in older adults can lead to a decline in cognitive function. This includes hearth disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, depression, and delirium. Falls can also lead to cognitive impairment.


Depression & Bipolar Disorder

Although a diagnosis is usually made in young adults, depression can occur at any age, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. Furthermore, depression is not a normal part of aging, although in the older adult population it may be misdiagnosed or under diagnosed since sadness is not a main symptom of depression in the elderly. A variety of factors can lead to depression in the older adults. This includes: loneliness and isolation, managing a chronic illness/disability, dementia, side effects of medications, poor quality of sleep, and being female.

Additionally, stressful life events (the death of a spouse, divorce/marital separation) can trigger an ongoing depression—which is different from the normal grief associated after the death of a spouse. The stress of being a caregiver to a spouse or family member makes the senior population especially vulnerable to depression. Furthermore, a family history or a previous episode of depression can also play a role. Alcohol or drug use (or misuse) also triggers a depressive state in the elderly.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks, according to NIMH. While more than half of bipolar disorders are diagnosed in teens and young adults, new research shows that nearly 25% of people with the condition are at least 60 years old, according to a 2015 report. Furthermore, the symptoms of bipolar disorder in older adults, such as sleep issues and aggressiveness, are often attributed to dementia or depression.

Talk to your Doctor

If you think you or an elderly loved one have a mental health condition the first step is to talk to your doctor or health care provider. A physical exam will be done to  rule out other conditions that may be causing or contributing to an issue with mental state. Be honest and open about your feelings with your physician. If other factors can be ruled out, the doctor may refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, counselor, social worker, or psychiatrist.



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