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Guide on Elderly Mental Health Issues

mental health for the elderly

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the world’s population is aging rapidly, and it is expected that the population over 60 years will nearly double by 2050. Around 15 percent of the adult population over 60 experience some type of mental disorder. The WHO statistic shows that mental and neurological disorders among the aging population account for 6.6 percent of the total disability (DALYs) for this age group.

Mental health is an essential part of a person’s health and well-being, regardless of their age. Mental illness involves diseases that cause thoughts, emotions, and behavior, impairing one’s ability to follow usual day-to-day routines.

Unfortunately, mental health concerns in the elderly are often unrecognized and untreated. Failure to recognize the symptoms (the signs of mental illness often get confused with regular signs of aging), lack of information, and stigma attached to mental illness often prevent the elderly from seeking help.

What Is the Most Common Mental Illness in the Elderly?

The most common mental and neurological disorders in the elderly are depression, anxiety, and dementia. According to the WHO, clinical depression affects approximately 7 percent of the world’s aging population, while anxiety disorders affect around 3.8 percent of the elderly. At the same time, roughly 5 percent of older people have Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia globally.

Other mental health concerns in the elderly involve bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use problems, and self-harming behaviors. The WHO’s data suggests that around one percent of the aging population struggles with substance abuse and that these problems are often overlooked in the elderly. Also, around a quarter of deaths from self-harm are among people aged 60 or older.

What are the Warning Signs of Mental Illness in the Elderly?

Recognizing the warning signs of mental illness in an older person can help the person (and his or her caregivers) cope with the symptoms and receive the appropriate treatment.

The main symptoms of mental illness in an aging person may include changes in mood, lack of personal care, social isolation, and memory problems.

  • Sudden Mood Swings

Unexpected changes in mood are frequent in depression and dementia. An aging person’s mood may suddenly switch from optimistic and cheerful to depressed, calm, and collected to angry and irritable, relaxed to anxious, and so on.

If you notice these symptoms in a loved one, encourage them to seek help or talk to their mental health provider. An older adult may be reluctant to seek advice, so ensure that you encourage and support them.

  • Personal Care Challenges

Your loved one with mental health issues may stop sticking to their personal care and appearance. They may skip the usual own care routines such as bathing, grooming, changing their clothes regularly, and similar. These behaviors may signal that the person struggles with dementia or mental illness.

  • Social Withdrawal

If an aging person suffers from mental health issues, they may become isolated and socially withdrawn. Your loved one may start avoiding familiar people, lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, or avoid other usual social engagements because mental illness prevents them from adhering to their regular social routines.

  • Memory Loss

Problems with memory are often wrongly considered a normal part of the aging process. However, memory loss is not a natural part of growing older. If your loved one keeps asking the same questions, often misplaces their belongings, forgets essential information such as names, dates, of significant life events, encourage them to speak to their doctor. They may have Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

Encourage your loved one to talk to their doctor about these symptoms.

Does Age Affect Mental Health?

Mental illnesses are present in all age groups. However, in a large number of people, late-life is affected by dementia. While many people develop dementia as they age, this doesn’t mean that dementia is a natural part of aging. Millions of people reach late years without any signs of dementia or other mental illness.

Dementia is not a single disease but a term used to describe a group of symptoms that spin around a decline in cognitive functions, behavior, and social skills. This decline is severe enough to inhibit a person’s regular daily life and activities.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of progressive dementia; 60 to 80 percent of older adults with dementia struggle with this disease. Dementia is most common in people over the age of 65. Almost half of all people aged 85 or older have some form of dementia. However, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can also affect people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Some of the first signs of dementia involve memory loss, reasoning and judgment, self-management, problem-solving, a decline in communication and language skills, and the ability to focus and pay attention.

In the first stages of dementia, the person typically suffers from mild symptoms that are not very noticeable. However, in the most severe stage, the symptoms affect all aspects of the person’s life, until he or she becomes entirely dependent on others for primary care and activities of daily living (ADLs).

What Emotional Issues Do Seniors Have?

For many people, adjustment to aging doesn’t go as they imagined. A person may find it difficult to adjust to all loses and changes that are becoming the part of life. Also, for many people, there may be a gap between what they thought growing older would be and how it is.

Resisting to change may trigger seniors’ emotional issues, so managing their mood can become very stressful for you as a family member or caregiver.

The most common mental health issue in the elderly is depression. Depression is much more than just feeling blue. Although more than 6 million Americans over the age of 65 experience depression, this condition is never a normal part of aging.

Depression in the elderly can be triggered by other health concerns such as dementia or chronic illness. It is common for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementia to develop depression. Your loved one with dementia may experience mood swings, feel sad and hopeless, cry, and become irritated and agitated.

Depression in the aging population may also develop due to other factors such as loneliness, loss of a loved one, a reduced sense of purpose, or side effects of certain medications or alcohol abuse.

Depression in the elderly can manifest in less visible or different symptoms than in younger people, so it may be challenging to recognize and diagnose it.

Your loved one with depression may experience the following symptoms of depression:

  • Feeling hopeless and worthless
  • Feeling guilty and ashamed
  • Fatigue
  • A decrease in energy
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory issues
  • Sleep troubles
  • Suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts

Treatment options for depression include traditional psychotherapy and medication. Also, there is a wide range of alternative therapies such as meditation, exercise, yoga, and others that can help seniors manage depression.

What is the Most Common Mental Health Problem in the Geriatric Age Group, and How It Can Be Avoided?

Depression and dementia are the most common mental health problem in the geriatric population.

Studies show that the person’s beliefs about aging and their lifestyle can significantly impact their health. For example, one study found that older Americans with negative feelings about aging were significantly more likely to develop dementia than seniors who approach their late-life with enthusiasm.

Active aging (creating opportunities for the elderly to actively participate in their communities, maintain interests and hobbies, and spend time with friends) is associated with a lower prevalence of depressive disorders in seniors. Research shows that people who are actively aging have a lower rate of depressive symptoms than those not engaging in these activities.

Active aging also involves opportunities for health and security, intending to improve people’s quality of life. Active aging promotes conditions such as positive mood, positive coping with stress, physical fitness, high cognitive functioning, low probability of illness, and disability.  Active aging involves everything that helps the aging population adapt to aging-related changes, remain in good health, and feel satisfied with life.

What Can Cause Personality Changes in the Elderly?

People change throughout their lives, so changes in our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior are normal and expected. However, dramatic personality changes usually don’t happen, especially not over a short period.

There are many health issues and life events that can cause personality changes in the elderly. Sudden personality changes may signal underlying medical problems that need immediate attention, so family members and caregivers need to know what is normal in terms of personality changes.

Your loved one may suddenly start experiencing mood swings or become depressed, irritable, short-tempered, apathetic, or angry. Also, they may show impulsiveness, social withdrawal, aggression, or paranoia. These behavior changes need to be addressed, so make sure to mention them to the older person’s health provider.

Sudden personality changes in the elderly can be caused by a variety of factors such as:

  • Dementia
  • Stroke
  • Grief due to the loss of a loved one or freedom
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Poor sleep during a prolonged time

Personality changes in seniors are often one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the most common behavior changes in seniors involve impulsive behavior, aggressive behavior, apathy, compulsive behavior, and anxiety.

What is the Most Common Cause of Depression in Older Adults?

Depression can occur at any stage of life. Older people may experience challenges common to all people. Still, they can also experience life events typical for later life, such as a decline in health, chronic pain, grief due to the loss of the loved ones or independence, reduced mobility, loneliness, isolation, or drop in socioeconomic status with retirement.

All of these factors may cause psychological distress and trigger depression.

Depression, especially in older adults, can co-exist with other severe medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s disease. Depression can aggravate these conditions and vice versa.

Does Untreated Depression Cause Dementia?

Research suggests a link between depression and dementia, implying that early-life depression is associated with a more considerable increase in the risk of dementia. Many people miss the symptoms of depression or dismiss them as the inevitable part of aging. Ignoring depression could allow potentially treatable memory issues to progress unrecognized and untreated.

One study found that people who had been depressed since middle age had an 80 percent greater risk of dementia, while those who became depressed late in life were at 70 percent greater risk.

The authors of the study believe that depression late in life may sign that changes have occurred in the person’s brain that can make him or her more likely to develop dementia.

Can an Elderly Person Get Schizophrenia?

Yes, they can. Although the early-onset schizophrenia is more common, schizophrenia can develop later in life. This disease is diagnosed as late-onset schizophrenia after the person is 45. Elderly persons with schizophrenia are less likely to have impaired learning, disorganized thoughts, or difficulty understanding information, but are more likely to experience hallucinations and delusions.

Is 60 Years Considered Elderly?

In most western countries, the chronological age of 60 to 65 is considered an elderly or older person. This concept is in most developed world countries associated with the age at which a person retires.

What Causes Mood Swings in the Elderly?

Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia can cause mood swings in individuals who previously didn’t have them or make mood swings much worse in people who have already experienced them.

Managing mood swings, irritability, and anger in the elderly with dementia can be very challenging. So, learning about effective coping strategies can make dementia care much more comfortable and help manage caregiver stress.

Understanding what causes your loved one’s mood swings can help you work out how the person feels, prevent their aggressive outbursts and meltdowns, and help them get help.

Sudden mood swings in dementia patients can be caused by confusion and decline in cognitive functions, loss of independence, physical factors (pain, discomfort, tiredness), and emotional difficulties (loneliness, depression, grief, boredom).

How Can the Elderly Improve Mental Health?

Good mental health is one of the pillars of one’s overall well-being. According to research, by changing their lifestyle and daily habits, the person can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 30 percent. Also, regular exercise, stress management (mindfulness meditation and relaxation, etc.), a healthy diet, a good sleep, mental stimulation, and social engagement can reduce the risk of mental illness and help protect the psychological well-being of the elderly.

  • Regular Physical Exercise

Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of developing dementia and improve mental health at an older age. Regular exercise protects against the cognitive decline typical for dementia by stimulating the brain’s plasticity, allowing it to make new neural connections and keep up the existing ones.

  • Stress Management

Effective stress management helps us overcome stress in your life and enjoy a balanced and happier life. Stress management can also improve one’s resilience – the ability to keep going under pressure and bounce back from stress.

The most effective stress management strategies include relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, tai chi, or spending time in nature.

  • Cognitive Training

Different studies show that cognitive training can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Challenging one’s brain by continually learning new things, practicing memorizing techniques, playing strategy games, and similar, can boost the brain plasticity and flexibility and reduce the risk of dementia.

  • Social Engagement

Every human being strive needs social stimulation to thrive. Staying socially active helps protect an aging person against dementia, alleviates anxiety and depression, and boosts mood and optimism.

  • A Healthy Diet

Studies show that a diet rich in healthy omega-3 fats, whole grains, vegetables, fish, and olive oil, also known as a Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and mental health disorders.

On the other hand, sugar, fat, alcohol, and smoking can increase the risk of stroke, and heart disease, atherosclerosis, and the damage to the nervous system.

What Are Old Age Problems?

Adapting to changes in life is challenging for most aging people. Your loved one may reject home care or refuse to move into an assisted-care facility. They may not want to give up their usual daily activities such as driving, grocery shopping despite the declining health.

Other old age-related problems involve fear of loneliness, declining health, the loss of freedom and independence, grief due to a loss of a partner, family members, or close friends, and the fear of not being able to age in place.

Research shows that loneliness is one of the biggest concerns people have as they age. Many aging people feel lonely and cut off from social circles, especially those over the age of 75. Ongoing feelings of isolation and loneliness can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

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