According to the Pan American Health Organization, over one in four older individuals experience some sort of mental disorder. While changes in mood and behavior often accompany the onset of mental illness in elderly people, family and friends may dismiss the signs as part of the normal aging process.
Older adults often have physical health problems, which can compound the effects of mental illness and negatively impact their overall well-being. Fortunately, many mental illnesses are easily treatable after a proper diagnosis. In this post, we’ll talk about mental health in older adults, including the most common mental health disorders, signs and symptoms, risk factors, and more.
What Are the Most Common Mental Illnesses in Elderly Adults?
The most common mental health disorders that affect the elderly include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorder, and schizophrenia. Often, seniors suffering from these mental illnesses require comprehensive treatments and care to help them manage their symptoms.
Depression is often underdiagnosed and undertreated in older patients. The most common symptoms of depression include:
- Long periods (two weeks or more) of feeling unhappy or “low”
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Difficulty falling asleep or sleeping excessively
- Poor concentration or focus
- Loss of interest in favorite activities or hobbies
- Noticeable changes in appetite
- Feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, or worthlessness
- Social withdrawal or isolation
Depression is more than just “having the blues” or “feeling sad.” Here’s the difference: feeling sad is an emotion that a person can overcome on their own, whereas depression will not go away without proper medical treatment.
To successfully manage depression, elderly adults will require ongoing treatment and support, including certain medications or therapy.
Anxiety is a completely normal feeling, usually resulting from stress or life changes. However, long-term, severe, and persistent feelings of anxiety could indicate a mental illness. The term “anxiety” covers multiple different disorders, including:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder causes relentless feelings of worry and anxiety for extended periods.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder causes persistent and disruptive thoughts that lead to anxiety and repetitive behaviors.
- Social Anxiety Disorder causes feelings of fear, self-consciousness, or worry in everyday social situations.
Some patients may also experience physical and mental symptoms, including racing pulse or heart rate, dizziness, headaches, tense muscles, or stomach upset.
Elderly populations are at high risk for mental illnesses like anxiety. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that almost half of older adults struggle with anxiety and depression, as the two conditions often go hand-in-hand. Treatments for anxiety can include prescription medications or cognitive therapies.
3. Substance Use Disorder
Substance abuse is a rapidly growing mental disorder in elderly populations. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about one million adults who are 65 or older have a substance use disorder.
Alcohol is the most common substance that older adults abuse, with around 65% of older adults (over 65) stating that they engage in high-risk drinking at least every week. Many seniors also abuse drugs like marijuana and prescription medications (i.e., opioids or benzodiazepines).
As seniors have slower metabolisms, their bodies can’t process substances very quickly, so they’re often more sensitive to drugs like alcohol and opioids. The most common signs of substance abuse in older adults include:
- Behavior and mood changes
- Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
- Experiencing depression or anxiety
- Cognitive decline, memory loss, or confusion
- Extreme changes in personal hygiene or appearance
- Health conditions associated with substance abuse (i.e., cirrhosis, Hep-C)
Treatment options for seniors with substance use disorder vary widely based on the type of substance, the severity of the addiction, preexisting health conditions, etc. Most treatments consist of medication, counseling, and therapy.
4. Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is another common mental illness in elderly adults. It’s a mood disorder that causes drastic mood shifts. People with bipolar disorder will switch from periods of mania to periods of depression.
During a manic episode, they will be “up,” feeling on top of the world, euphoric, energetic, or invincible. After the mania comes depression, which causes “down” feelings, including excessive sleeping, fatigue, lack of interest or motivation, sadness, low self-esteem, etc. Many times, bipolar disorder can present symptoms similar to other mental illnesses in the elderly, like dementia or depression.
The most common symptoms of bipolar disorder include:
- Extreme mood shifts between mania and depression
- Changes in sleeping patterns or energy levels
- Abnormal appetite or eating
- Taking part in risky, impulsive, or reckless behavior
- Poor personal hygiene or self-care
- Thoughts of suicide or suicidal ideations
Seniors who struggle with bipolar disorder usually undergo a combination of treatments that include prescription medication and therapy. These should be taken into consideration when moving to assisted living.
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that can affect people of any age. However, late-onset schizophrenia often occurs after age 45 and makes up approximately 15% to 20% of all schizophrenia cases. Chronic schizophrenia is both serious and debilitating and can cause a range of symptoms: positive symptoms, negative symptoms, and cognitive symptoms. The most common positive symptoms of schizophrenia include:
- Movement disorders (i.e., jerking movements, pacing, repetitive motions)
- Auditory, visual, physical, or olfactory hallucinations
Elderly patients with negative symptoms of schizophrenia may avoid their family or friends, adopt a flat affect, or show little emotion. Cognitive symptoms affect memory, speech, and concentration, including a lack of concentration, disorganized thoughts, jumbled speech, or poor memory. Patients with schizophrenia often receive dual treatments: psychological therapy and antipsychotic medications.
Watch for Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness in Older Adults
Depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are among the most common types of mental illness in elderly patients. If you’ve noticed any warning signs or behavioral changes that indicate your elderly loved one may be suffering from a mental disorder, don’t wait to seek medical advice. It’s important to ensure they receive the proper diagnosis, treatment, and care.
At Individual Care of Texas and Highland Assisted Living, we provide long-term care solutions and assisted living for the mentally ill and seniors with special needs. Call us now at (903) 356-4526 or (325) 675-5100 to book an appointment or schedule a tour of our facility.