Mental Health Issues Seniors Should Know About

Feb 13, 2024
Mental Health Issues Seniors Should Know About
As you age, your brain naturally changes to meet your body’s changing needs, but you may also develop mental health issues that are not a part of getting older. Here are some of those issues and what you should know and do about them.

Mental health issues are a huge problem in the United States, especially among the senior population. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • At least 1 in 4 seniors experiences some form of mental disorder.
  • Due to an aging population, that number will double by 2030.
  • People 85 and older have the highest suicide rate of any age group.
  • Two-thirds of seniors with mental health problems don’t get the help they need (“treatment gap”).
  • Mental health services for the elderly are extremely limited in most countries of North and South America.

The most common problems among this population are depression, dementia, and anxiety. Depression and dementia affect 5% to 7%, respectively, of the population over 60. Anxiety is a close runner-up; WHO reports it affects 3.8% of older adults.

Mental health problems can also arise from physical disorders or surgical interventions. It’s common to see a cognitive decline with each succeeding diagnosis/procedure.

Health care providers, especially primary care and family physicians like Dr. Richard Pedroza at AGP Family Health Clinic, help promote good mental health for seniors by working with mental health professionals, local governments, civil society organizations, families, and communities to ensure care is available and takes place in a supportive environment. If you or a loved one has reached your golden years, here are a number of mental health issues you should be aware of.

The elderly and mental health

Older adults have unique mental health needs. Common factors such as transitional periods, relocating to new accommodations, the deaths of friends and family members, and bodily changes are common in people over 60. Multiple issues have a compounding effect, leading to depression, substance abuse, dementia, anxiety, mental distress, and suicide attempts.

Social isolation and loneliness are contributing factors to mental problems and have been linked to physical illnesses and conditions such as: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Weak immune system
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cognitive decline

Loneliness and social isolation aren’t the same thing. You might live alone but have an active social life and therefore aren’t isolated or lonely. However, even when you’re surrounded by people, you can feel lonely and disconnected from others.

Difficulties facing senior mental health treatment

The American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP) notes that some 10-20% of adults 65 and older experience clinical levels of anxiety, but it often goes unrecognized.

Part of the reason is that older adults may not know how to recognize the signs of anxiety or don’t feel comfortable asking an outsider for help. Another part is that doctors may confuse anxiety symptoms with other health conditions, such as gastrointestinal illness.

Family members may believe anxiety symptoms are expected facets of grief or other life situations, but life-disrupting anxiety is not a normal part of aging and can further aggravate cognitive decline and the person’s quality of life.

Depression, too, may be overlooked among the elderly population, but it’s a common occurrence as well. Depression is characterized by general listlessness, sadness, and a lack of interest in others and activities that used to bring joy. It may be a sign that the individual needs more social support, activities, and relationship-building.

Like anxiety, clinical depression is not a normal part of aging. Treat any depressive symptoms as potentially serious and seek help right away.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is also part of the aging process, and it shouldn’t be confused with dementia, deterioration of the brain that affects function. MCI isn’t related to a mental health condition but is simply an advanced form of memory loss.

People with MCI can usually continue to care for themselves, but they may require an organizational system to track objects, remember appointments, take medication, and communicate effectively.

MCI may or may not proceed to the onset of dementia. For that reason, keep track of memory issues like losing keys or having difficulty recalling friends’ names. If they get worse, it’s time to get help.

Your point of contact for treatment starts with Dr. Pedroza, who can perform tests to determine if there’s an underlying medical condition. He can also refer you to a mental health specialist who can help with medication, coping skills, stress reduction, and social support.

If you or a loved one falls in the elderly population, it’s important to be alert for signs of mental health issues. Dr. Pedroza and AGP Family Clinic in Tomball, Texas, can help with getting the necessary treatment. To get started, call our friendly office staff for advice at 832-861-0393, or book your appointment online with us today.