Mental Health in the Elderly

Dementia is not part of aging. Dementia can be caused by  reactions to medications, disease, vision and hearing problems, infections, nutritional imbalances, diabetes, and renal failure. There are different forms of dementia (including Alzheimer’s Disease) and some can be temporary. With accurate diagnosis comes management and help. The most common late-in-life mental health condition is depression. If left untreated, depression in the elderly or with anyone can lead to suicide.

Some may wonder; How do you know if your loved one is experiencing symptoms of mental illness or just the normal changes of older age? 

Did you know that roughly about 20 percent of adults aged 55 or older have experienced some type of mental health concern, but nearly one in three of those seniors do not receive treatment?   The statistics on mental illness in seniors can be concerning, but with knowledge and vigilance, caregivers can stay aware of the mental and emotional health of their clients and make sure they get properly treated if they are experiencing a problem.

The Facts About Mental Illness in the Elderly

The most common mental health issue among the elderly is severe cognitive impairment or dementia, which can be particularly caused by Alzheimer’s disease. An estimated 5 million adults 65 and older currently have Alzheimer’s disease—about 11 percent of seniors. Other types of dementia would bring the numbers even higher.

Depression as well as mood disorders are also fairly widespread among older adults, and disturbingly, they often go un-diagnosed and even untreated.

Often going along with depression in many individuals, anxiety is also one of the more prevalent mental health problems among the elderly.  Anxiety disorders encompass a range of issues, from obsessive-compulsive disorder to phobias to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 7.6% of those over 65 have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Causes and Risk Factors for Senior Mental Illness

One of the ongoing problem with diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in seniors is the fact that older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than psychiatric complaints. However, even the normal physical and emotional stresses that go along with aging can be risk factors for mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Here are a few potential triggers for mental illness in the elderly:

  • Physical disability
  • Medication interactions
  • Physical illnesses that can affect thought, memory, and emotion (e.g. thyroid or adrenal disease)
  • Dementia-causing illness (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Long-term illness (e.g., heart disease or cancer)
  • Illness or loss of a loved one
  • Change of environment, like moving into assisted living
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Poor diet or malnutrition

Is it Mental Illness or Aging? 10 Symptoms of Mental Illness

As your client or even your loved ones age, it’s natural for some changes to occur. Regular forgetfulness is one thing, however; persistent memory loss or cognitive impairment is another thing and could be potentially serious. The same goes for extreme anxiety or long-term depression. Caregivers should keep an eye out for the following warning signs, which could indicate a mental health concern:

  1. Sad or depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks
  2. Unexplained fatigue, energy loss, or sleep changes
  3. Memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems
  4. Changes in appearance or dress, or problems maintaining the home or yard
  5. Increase or decrease in appetite; changes in weight
  6. Trouble handling finances or working with numbers
  7. Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  8. Confusion, disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making
  9. Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness; thoughts of suicide
  10. Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained: aches, constipation, etc.

Don’t hesitate to seek help if your client or loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms above. There are many professionals out there willing and able to help, including their family doctor, who is always the best place to start. You could also consult a counselor, a psychologist, or a geriatric psychiatrist. The important part is not to stand by and suffer alone. With the combined efforts of families, caregivers, and mental health professionals, we can help ward off mental illness in our older loved ones and make sure they are on the right track to healthy aging.

Caregivers please call our office with any concerns and questions you may have!