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The Difference Between Aging and Mental Illness

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9th Sep 2016

POSTED BY

Matthias

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As our loved ones age, it’s not uncommon to wonder if some of the symptoms they experience are normal signs of aging or an indication of mental illness. In fact, nearly 20 percent of adults aged 55 and over have experienced some type of mental health concern. However, one out of every three of those seniors does not receive the treatment they require. With proper knowledge and vigilance you can prevent this scenario from happening to your loved ones.

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Assessing Mental Illness in the Elderly

When discussing mental health issues among the elderly, a common theme is cognitive impairment or dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. It is estimated that 5 million seniors over the age of 65 are currently affected by Alzheimer’s, and that number increases even further when you incorporate other forms of dementia.

Less often conversed are illnesses such as depression and mood disorders. These ailments affect more than 5% of seniors and often go undiagnosed and untreated. They are also often accompanied by anxiety which can cause symptoms such as hoarding syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias.

 

Mental Illness vs Aging

Cognitive changes, such as forgetfulness, are common occurrences as our loved ones age. However, it is important to distinguish the difference between these and persistent memory loss or extreme anxiety. The Senior Living Blog from A Place for Mom has listed 10 symptoms that may indicate mental illness.

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

It may be a challenging situation to comprehend, but it is important for the health of your elderly loved ones that you do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional if you notice any of these signs.

Possible Triggers for Mental Illness

There are many potential causes of mental illness. The normal physical and emotional stress of aging is enough to establish mental illnesses- such as anxiety and depression. However, the root of these issues many run deeper than that. The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation has listed a number of potential causes for mental illness.

  • Physical disability
  • Long-term illness (e.g., heart disease or cancer)
  • Dementia-causing illness (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Physical illnesses that can affect thought, memory, and emotion (e.g. thyroid or adrenal disease)
  • Change of environment, like moving into assisted living
  • Illness or loss of a loved one
  • Medication interactions
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Poor diet or malnutrition

 

Older adults will typically report physical symptoms but often avoid making psychiatric complaints. This has been a deterrent in the quest to properly diagnose and treat mental illness in seniors. It is imperative to seek help if your loved one is experiencing symptoms of mental illness. There are a multitude of healthcare professionals who are willing and able to help, including geriatric psychiatrists who are specifically trained to treat such cases.  The combined efforts of families and mental health professionals can make great strides in aiding the healthy aging of your loved ones.