When a young person exhibits the signs of anxiety and depression, their healthcare provider is quick to offer them treatment. Younger adults show much more apparent signs of mental health problems, making them easy to identify. In older adults, particularly those aged 65 and older, healthcare professionals may miss treatable mental health problems because the symptoms may present differently. In fact, the CDC estimates that a significant portion of the senior population never receives treatment for treatable mental health problems.
How severe mental illness among seniors is as a problem.
The CDC estimates that twenty percent of seniors have some kind of mental illness that is not a normal part of the aging process. These illnesses range from dementia and other cognitive impairment to depression and anxiety. Some seven million Americans over the age of 65 have depression symptoms, and more than one-third of them do not receive treatment. Chronically ill patients with depression have significantly higher healthcare costs than those with chronic illnesses alone.
Why signs of mental health problems in seniors are often missed.
Seniors face many challenges as they age. The loss of a spouse, the loss of friends, the onset of medical problems, and limited mobility all contribute to the likelihood of developing mental health problems. Coping with these challenges often changes seniors’ behavior in subtle ways. Many of the coping mechanisms they develop, such as losing interest in activities in which they can no longer participate, overlap in certain ways with the symptoms of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Healthcare providers may mistake changes in a patient’s mental state as a natural reaction to illness, limited mobility, and life changes.
Older adults tend to have more traditional values, which happen to include long-held stigmas toward mental illness. Many seniors will ignore the signs of mental illness and underplay their severity with their primary care doctor. While they may feel unusually sad, hopeless, or anxious, they want to accept their feelings as a natural part of the aging process. How they feel, however, is not a normal part of aging.
How untreated mental health problems affect overall health.
Untreated depression and anxiety wreak havoc on the human body. They increase the number of stress hormones in the bloodstream, which in turn elevate blood pressure and contribute to more inflammation throughout the body. Depression and anxiety contribute to heart disease and other vascular diseases and significantly exacerbate existing chronic conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and others. Over time, mental health problems can dramatically increase a senior’s risk of heart attack, stroke, renal failure, and even cognitive problems and dementia.
Depression especially raises the risk of suicide. Seniors over the age of 65 account for over 16% of suicides in the U.S., making them one of the likeliest populations to resort to such an act. Untreated mental illness is the primary contributing factor to suicide among seniors.
Signs and symptoms of mental health problems that need treatment.
According to the CDC, someone who is depressed has feelings of sadness or anxiety that last for weeks at a time. He or she may also experience:
- Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
- Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Overeating or appetite loss
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
- Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment
What to do about untreated mental health problems.
It is essential to seek help when the signs and symptoms of a potential mental health problem are identified. Considering the large number of undiagnosed and untreated cases, family, friends, and healthcare workers will need to work together to prevent symptoms from turning into further illness. On the one hand, seniors need to accept that they need treatment and that their symptoms are not a normal part of aging; on the other hand, healthcare professionals need to pay close attention to the duration and severity of symptoms to determine if treatment is necessary. Ultimately, the solution to the problem is multi-faceted, but the more knowledge people have, the better. The key to helping seniors with mental health problems is education, then action.