May has been the national Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949. Its purpose is to raise awareness and educate the public about mental illnesses like for example depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Mental Health Awareness Month also strives to reduce negative attitudes and misconceptions that surrounds mental illnesses.
Mental Illness in the Elderly
Did you know that about 20% 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 are sobering, but with knowledge and vigilance, caregivers can stay aware of the emotional and mental health of their older loved ones and make sure they are properly treated if they are experiencing a problem.
You might not be surprised to read that the most common mental health issue among the elderly is severe cognitive impairment or dementia. An estimated 5 million adults 65 and older currently have Alzheimer’s disease — about 11% of seniors, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Depression and mood disorders are also fairly widespread among older adults, and disturbingly, they often go undiagnosed and untreated. The CDC reports that 5% of seniors 65 and older reported having current depression and about 10.5% reported a diagnosis of depression at some point in their lives.
Often going along with depression, anxiety is also one of the more prevalent mental health problems among the elderly. Anxiety disorders encompass a range of issues, from hoarding syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder to phobias and 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, says the CDC.
Risk Factors for Mental Illness
One of the ongoing problems 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 emotional and physical stresses that go along with aging can be risk factors for mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression.
The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation lists a number of potential triggers for mental illness in the elderly:
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Change of environment, like moving into assisted living
- Dementia-causing illness (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease)
- Illness or loss of a loved one
- Long-term illness (e.g., canceror heart disease)
- Medication interactions
- Physical disability
- Physical illnesses that can affect emotion, memory and thought
- Poor diet or malnutrition
10 Symptoms of Mental Illness
As our loved ones’ age, it’s natural for some changes to occur. Regular forgetfulness is one thing, however; persistent cognitive or memory loss is another thing and 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:
- Changes in appearance or dress, or problems maintaining the home or yard.
- Confusion, disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making.
- Decrease or increase in appetite; changes in weight.
- Depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks.
- Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness; thoughts of suicide.
- Memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems.
- Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained: aches, constipation, etc.
- Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable.
- Trouble handling finances or working with numbers.
- Unexplained fatigue, energy loss or sleep changes.
Don’t hesitate to seek help if your loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms above, urges the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation.
There are professionals out there willing to help, including your family doctor, who is always a good place to start. You could also consult a counselor, geriatric psychiatrist or psychologist. The important part is not to stand by and suffer alone.
With the combined efforts of caregivers, family, friends 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.