Mental Health and Aging

Aging couple, man and woman, smiling

Problems arise when symptoms of mental health disorders are looked at as natural parts of aging, and disorders go untreated. Unfortunately, many believe that mental health disorders are just parts of the aging process – but they’re not.

The American Association for Geriatric Psychology shows 20% of adults over 55 report mental health concerns. It is important to be aware of these mental health concerns, identifying and separating signs of abnormal aging from the more normal, expected consequences.

It’s also important to know and practice mental health prevention techniques, or the activities that keep individuals from developing problematic illnesses and behaviors. And that if mental health disorder do develop, that proven treatments are available.

For example, depression is one of the most prevalent yet successfully treated illnesses, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, and treatment can dramatically improve the lives of older adults who suffer from it.

By understanding that mental health concerns are not a normal part of the aging process, we can increase access to mental health treatment, and help to prevent or cure mental health disorders.

Prevalence of Depression

Depression is the most prevalent mental health concern for older adults. The American Psychological Association (APA) indicates that depression affects 20% of older adults in the community, and nearly 37% of nursing home residents. Depression can lead to serious physical and mental impairment, and even suicide. For information on prevention see, Suicide Prevention.

Men aged 85 and older have the highest suicide rate of all age groups, accounting for 20% of all suicides despite making up only 13% of the population, according to the APA. In older men, suicide is linked to depression resulting from unemployment, loneliness, physical illness, and feelings of hopelessness. Societal expectations might also affect this high suicide rate. Some men are taught to repress their emotions and not share them with others, so men may be less likely to report suicidal thoughts.

Symptoms of depression include experiencing persistent sadness, withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, difficulty sleeping, physical discomforts, and feeling “slowed down,” according to the CDC. There is a widespread belief that slowing down is part of the aging process, so many symptoms of depression are ignored. The reality is that 80% of depression cases in older adults are treatable, according to the CDC, and that older adults can treat and manage depression so that it doesn’t destroy their lives.

How does Anxiety Affect Older Adults?

Older adults with depression are frequently diagnosed with anxiety as well – the second most prevalent mental health concern among older adults. Anxiety is a normal part of life, but becomes a problematic when it affects daily activities, social interactions, work performance, and relationships.

Anxiety affects 10% to 20% of the older adult population, according to statistics from the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF). There are six types of anxiety.

Older adults often let symptoms of anxiety go unreported, because they may be focused on physical problems instead of mental ones. Common signs of anxiety include excessive fear, refusing to do daily routines, concern about safety, poor sleep, shallow breathing, nausea, and depression. Treatment for anxiety involves medication, counseling, stress reduction, and family or social support, according to the GMHF.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Occasional forgetfulness is a normal part of the aging process, but there is a huge difference between what constitutes normal memory loss and dementia-related memory loss. Forgetting part of an experience, such as a family vacation, is part of normal memory loss. Forgetting the vacation ever happened is abnormal and dementia related.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disorder that impairs brain function, affecting the memory. Nearly 13% of adults aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s, according to a 2010 report from the Alzheimer’s Association. Characteristics of the disease include difficulty remembering names and recent events, disorientation, impaired judgment, confusion, behavior changes, and difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking.

Unfortunately, there are no cures for the disease, an illness characterized by deteriorating and dying brain cells. Build up of protein fragments called “plaques” and “tangles” in the brain inhibit the transfer of information in the brain, often beginning with memory functions.

The Alzheimer’s Association cites age, family history, and genetics as the main risk factors for the disease, and states that there are treatments to improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients. It also reports that as of 2010 there are approximately 90 experimental therapies aimed at slowing or stopping Alzheimer’s that are in clinical testing.

Recent studies are aimed at detecting Alzheimer’s early, before symptoms arise. In a New York Times article by Pam Belluck titled, “For Edge on Alzheimer’s, Testing Early Treatments,” scientists say they believe that by the time they begin to administer drugs to treat the disease, too much damage may have been done. Discovering when the brain begins to deteriorate prompts a quicker response to the disease, allowing for greater success in treatment.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease affects the motor functioning of an individual due to neurological impairment of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the main symptoms of Parkinson’s are slowness of movement, trembling of hands and legs, stiffness in the trunk, and impaired balance and coordination.

It is unknown what causes the onset of Parkinson’s, but some scientists believe it to be either a factor of chemicals in the environment, genetics, or as an abnormal effect of the aging process. Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, but treatments to provide relief for the symptoms exist. Usually patients are given medications that replenish the brain’s supply of dopamine.

One treatment that has proven successful in the fight against Parkinson’s is deep brain stimulation. Deep brain stimulation works by implanting electrodes in the brain that help stimulate dopamine production. While the treatment does not completely cure the disease, it can provide temporary comfort for those suffering with it.

Maintaining Strong Mental Health as You Age

There are a number of ways to stay healthy as you age, and scientists have shown that regular physical and mental exercise help prevent the onset of mental health disorders. They have also found that those with mental health disorders manage their symptoms better with physical exercise and diet – and by staying mentally active and engaged.

Ways to Help Ensure Successful Aging.

Elderly man exercising, doing push ups, smiling
  • Regular physical exercise. Keeping physically fit helps to ward off symptoms of depression and anxiety. Older adults who do not receive regular exercise may have more difficulty accomplishing physical tasks in everyday life. A lack of physical exercise could also lead to health problems like cardiovascular disease, which could contribute to anxiety and depression.
  • A healthy diet. A diet rich in vegetables provides the essential nutrients for a healthy brain. Vitamins E and C can help to prevent mental illness like dementia, according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation. Moderating your intake of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol is also important to maintaining strong mental health.
  • Regular mental exercise. Some scientists believe that the best way to keep your mind sharp is by learning new things, or solving puzzles. Exercising different parts of your brain, such as by learning a new instrument, helps to ward off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to the American Health Assistance Foundation.

While physical and mental health risks are part of aging, there are mental benefits to aging. As we age, our brains are constantly producing and replacing brain cells. While our skills at multi-tasking may diminish with age, reasoning skills and empathy continue to improve as we grow older. A National Public Radio report by Michelle Trudeau indicates that the speed by which information travels from brain cell to brain cell increases with age. This allows us to identify and solve potential problems earlier than we could when we were younger.

For more information on becoming a mental health professional specializing in working with older adults, contact schools offering degree programs in gerontology.

Heart Disease and Mental Health

Stress factors put unwanted strain on our bodies, and possibly contribute to physical health issues as we age. Studies have increasingly shown that strong mental health is not only important for maintaining a healthy brain, but also for keeping your heart strong.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychology examined the relationship between mental health and cardiovascular disorders. The study, titled “Scared to Death? Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Cardiovascular Events in Patients With Stable Coronary Heart Disease,” examined 1,000 patients, and followed them for approximately six years. Of those 1,000 patients, 371 developed some form of cardiovascular problem. Nearly 10% of patients with cardiovascular problems were shown to have anxiety disorders. The study concluded that patients with anxiety disorders, specifically generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), were 62% more likely to suffer from heart problems.

GAD is characterized by chronic and exaggerated worry or tension, even if there is nothing to be concerned about, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. GAD is one of the most common forms of anxiety, and women are diagnosed with the disorder almost twice as much as men.

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation reports anxiety is prevalent in 10% to 20% of the older adult population, and is one of the most common mental disorders. Unfortunately, many of these cases go undiagnosed.

More studies are showing a correlation between mental and physical health, so older adults should consider more frequent mental checkups. Stress levels and anxiety can be maintained with the help of a psychologist, and medications exist to help curb the symptoms of GAD. Of course, the best way to combat heart disease is by a combination of staying physically and mentally fit. Lowering cholesterol levels and maintaining a healthy diet will strengthen your heart, further reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems.

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