Just like physical health, our mental health needs to be tended to throughout our lives. But many people don’t realize that older adults can also experience mental health challenges or illnesses.
Below, we break down a few top myths about older adults and mental health.
Myth #1: Mental illness is a common part of aging
There is a misconception in our culture that older adults are generally unhappy and more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
Research actually shows that older adults tend to be happier than their younger counterparts — despite the physical challenges and cognitive limitations that come with aging. Psychologists believe there are a combination of factors at play including older adults being more emotionally stable and better equipped to handle life’s stressors.
However, that doesn’t mean that older adults can’t develop depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. In fact, there are certain conditions that increase the risk of developing depression in seniors, which include the following:
- Major medical conditions such as stroke or cancer
- Stress, such as from caring for a loved one
- Social isolation
- Lack of exercise
- Decrease in physical abilities
Mental illness can occur at any age and should be treated like any other medical issue. If you or a loved one are struggling with depression or anxiety, remember that it is not a common part of aging, and that your primary care provider or a licensed mental health professional can help.
Myth #2: If an older adult is depressed, it’s easy to spot
Depression can be more common in older adults experiencing chronic health issues, or those requiring extensive care. Anywhere from one to five percent of older adults living in the community may experience depression, but the number rises to 13.5 percent for those requiring home health care.
Everyone feels sad during certain points in their lives. Depression is a persistent feeling of sadness, numbness, or hopelessness for an extended period of time. Typical signs of depression in younger adults include a loss of interest in regular activities, drastic changes in sleep and eating habits, low energy, and trouble concentrating.
However, spotting signs of depression in seniors can be more difficult because they may overlap with other conditions. For example, the symptoms of depression can be similar to those of dementia, such as a lack of energy, forgetfulness, or mild confusion.
Additional signs of depression in older adults include:
- Trouble with memory
- Changes in personality
- Physical aches or pains with no apparent cause
- Fatigue, loss of appetite, or sleep problems — not caused by a medical condition or medication
- Little or no desire to socialize or do new things — prefers to stay at home rather than go out
- Suicidal thinking or feelings, especially in older men
If you notice any of these persistent signs in yourself or a loved one, be sure to seek help as soon as you can.
Myth #3: A senior’s physical health is more important than their mental health
Because there is much emphasis placed on an older adult’s physical health, sometimes their mental health can unintentionally take a backseat.
It’s important to remember that physical and mental health are connected and therefore equally important. For example, depression may increase the risk for conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Conversely, living with a chronic illness increases the risk of depression.
Fortunately, many strategies that seek to improve one facet of health will also enhance the other, such as exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet. We’ll cover more ways to boost mental health later in this blog.
Myth #4: Substance use disorder doesn’t affect seniors
More than one million people over age 65 live with a substance use disorder (SUD). SUD is a mental illness that affects an individual’s brain and behavior, making it difficult for them to control their use of drugs, alcohol, or medication.
Older adults may be at risk for a SUD because of a variety of factors. Major life changes, like retirement, loss of loved ones, or health concerns, may prompt someone to turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping.
It may be harder to spot substance use disorders in older adults — as symptoms are similar to age-related changes in the brain or medication side effects. Warning signs to pay attention to include:
- Slurred speech
- Unexplained injuries
- Memory problems
- Less contact with loved ones
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
If you notice these symptoms in a loved one, it could be a sign of a substance use disorder that should be addressed with medical help.
Ways to Boost Mental Health
We are bombarded with stressors daily, which can negatively impact our mental health. Thankfully, there are strategies you can put in place to keep yourself feeling your best both physically and mentally.
Self-care is the common term used to describe the activities and habits we do each day to take care of ourselves. While some people feel that self-care is a luxury, it’s actually vital to achieving your best health. Think of your overall health as a garden: Those carefully tended each day will usually flourish, while those left to fend for themselves won’t do as well.
Here are a few simple ways to boost your mental health each day.
- Talk to someone. Social engagement is an essential piece of good mental health. Whether it’s a phone call with a grandchild or a chat with a neighbor, make an effort to stay connected with friends and family.
- Do something you enjoy. Even spending a few minutes a day on a favorite hobby — like doing a puzzle, taking a walk, or reading a book — can help boost your mood and keep your mind active.
- Exercise. Staying physically active can bring a host of benefits and can even help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Take a walk, go for a swim, or hop on the stationary bike — just get moving!
- Spend quiet time. Our lives are often busy and filled with noise. But taking a few moments to appreciate the silence and quiet your mind can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase your sense of focus.
Where to Find Professional Help
If you notice the signs and symptoms of mental illness in yourself or someone else, be sure to seek medical help. The Administration on Aging’s eldercare locator can help you identify resources in your area for mental health support.