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Discover the Top Symptoms and Risk Factors of Mental Illness in the Elderly

Angelike Gaunt
By Angelike GauntApril 18, 2020

Mental health disorders affect about 20% of older adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unfortunately, nearly one in three of those seniors does not receive treatment.

Careful attention to your aging loved one’s mental health may be even more important amid fear and stress over the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. While anxiety and concern related to the pandemic affect people of all ages, the elderly may be more susceptible to mental health disorders during this time. Isolation due to essential physical distancing preventive measures and concerns over their increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 can take a toll on seniors’ mental health. 

With knowledge and watchfulness, you can assess your senior loved one’s safety and well-being, and stay aware of their emotional and mental health to ensure they receive proper treatment.

Do mental health issues get worse with age?

Mental illness is not a natural part of aging. In fact, mental health disorders affect younger adults more often than they do older adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, seniors are less likely to seek help.

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The most common mental health issue among the elderly is severe cognitive impairment or dementia. About 5 million adults 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease — about 10% of seniors, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Depression and mood disorders affect up to 5% of seniors 65 and older living in the community, and up to 13.5% of older adults who receive home healthcare or are hospitalized, according to the CDC. Disturbingly, they often go undiagnosed and untreated.

Anxiety disorders often go along with depression. They include a range of issues, from hoarding syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder to phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nearly 8% of those older than 65 have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, says the CDC.

Risk factors for mental health disorders in seniors

Older adults experience stress like all people, but even the normal emotional and physical stresses that go along with aging can be risk factors for mental illnesses. Careful attention to your aging loved one’s mental health may be even more important now amid fear and stress over the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

While anxiety and concern related to the pandemic affect people of all ages, the elderly may be more susceptible to mental health disorders during this time. Isolation due to concerns over their increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 can take a toll on seniors’ mental health.

According to the World Health Organization and the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, other potential triggers for mental illness in the elderly include:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Dementia-causing illness (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Illness or loss of a loved one
  • Long-term illness (e.g., cancer or heart disease)
  • Chronic pain
  • Medication interactions
  • Physical disability or loss of mobility
  • Physical illnesses that can affect emotion, memory and thought
  • Poor diet or malnutrition

Assessing mental health in seniors

One of the ongoing problems with diagnosing and treating mental illness in seniors is the fact that older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than psychiatric complaints.

Certain elderly behavioral problems may be a sign of a mental health disorder. Assess these five areas to determine whether a consultation with your loved one’s doctor is warranted:

  • Life tasks and self-care activities such as dressing, preparing meals, or using the phone
  • Safety, including financial safety and driving
  • Physical health, including pain or uncomfortable symptoms, hospitalizations, or loss of appetite
  • Mood and brain health, such as feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, or isolation
  • Medication safety, including skipping medications, and worrisome side effects or symptoms related to medications

10 symptoms of mental illness in the elderly

As loved ones age, it’s natural for some changes to occur. Occasional forgetfulness is one thing; however, persistent cognitive or memory loss is 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:

  1. Changes in appearance or dress, or problems maintaining the home or yard.
  2. Confusion, disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making.
  3. Decrease or increase in appetite; changes in weight.
  4. Depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks.
  5. Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness; thoughts of suicide.
  6. Memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems.
  7. Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained: aches, constipation, etc.
  8. Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable.
  9. Trouble handling finances or working with numbers.
  10. Unexplained fatigue, energy loss or sleep changes.

During these times of social distancing, be sure to keep a close eye on your aging loved one when you’re dropping off groceries, talking on the phone, or doing a video chat to spot signs they need help.

Don’t hesitate to seek help if your loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms above. Your loved one’s family doctor is always a good place to start.


Sources

World Health Organization: Mental Health of Older Adults (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-of-older-adults)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Healthy Brain Initiative (https://www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm)

National Institute of Mental Health Mental Illness (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154910)

Angelike Gaunt
Author
Angelike Gaunt

Angelike Gaunt is a content strategist at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.

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