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Your Mental Well-Being Matters: What All Seniors and Elderly Americans Should Know

When's the last time you deeply pondered your own mental well-being? Are you unsure? As a senior, "mental health" may not be a topic you think much about. After all, many people in our society don't even know the best way to discuss it. So you certainly aren't alone if this subject isn't among your top considerations. But maybe it should be. By exploring this subject, maybe you'll gain new insights that will help you and others achieve a more satisfying life.

Your ongoing vitality is simply too important. Why overlook the mental aspects that contribute to it? Think about it: All of us have rich inner lives that are colored by strong beliefs, ever-changing thoughts, unique perceptions, and shifting emotions. Those things drive our actions and shape our overall sense of what it means to be human. But they can also affect our physical wellness, relationships, and general quality of life.

That's why positive changes are often the result of paying closer attention to our mental well-being. Regardless of whether you perceive yourself as young, middle-aged, or elderly, mental health has a major role to play. The better you understand it, the better you can thrive. So check out the following information. It may help you see this topic in a whole new light.

Why Your Mental Well-Being Is So Important

If you broke your arm, would you ignore it and go about the rest of your day as if nothing happened? Most likely, you wouldn't. The pain would become too intense. And leaving it alone would lead to even worse problems. So you would get it treated. And you'd probably do what you could to keep it from ever happening again. That's all very straightforward, right?

But what if the injury was more hidden? What if it was to your mind? Would you recognize that something was wrong? Even if you did, would you seek help right away or try to handle it all yourself while mostly denying that it's a real problem? Those questions probably aren't as easy to answer. When it comes to mental health, many people dance around the subject or downplay their experiences.

In fact, among seniors and the elderly, mental health issues are often misunderstood or marginalized. And that's unfortunate. Your mental wellness is every bit as important as your physical wellness. Left untreated, psychological problems and brain disorders can interfere with your ability to enjoy life, maintain relationships, or function on a day-to-day basis. They can also lead to visible physical illnesses and make it harder to heal from injuries or manage diseases you may already have.

In short, taking your mental well-being seriously is a major step toward achieving and sustaining a better quality of life.

The Most Common Mental Health Conditions in the Elderly and Senior Population

Did you know that about 15 percent of all adults over the age of 60 experience some kind of mental health problem?1 That means you probably know people who've been affected by conditions like the ones listed below—even if they've kept their challenges private. Just remember: None of these issues are considered by professionals to be normal parts of aging. Nor are they anything to be ashamed of. They are real conditions that can often be successfully treated or managed by getting professional help. Some of the most common mental health issues in the elderly and senior population include:

  • Depression—Older adults have a heightened risk of depression, which makes this one of the most important issues in the field of geriatric mental health. Everybody feels sad sometimes. But depression is much more than that. People who are depressed tend to have a consistently low mood, which doesn't necessarily always manifest as sadness. They may also experience ongoing feelings like anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, emptiness, worthlessness, irritability, or hopelessness. Often, they don't get enjoyment from activities they previously liked. And they may feel generally apathetic about life, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. In fact, elderly men have the highest suicide rate of any demographic. 2 If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Anxiety disorders—All of us have fears and temporary worries. But some people have feelings of anxiety that don't go away or that consistently get triggered in certain kinds of situations. As a result, they may have trouble doing normal activities. Their feelings can also grow worse over time and cause more and more interference in their lives. Many types of anxiety disorders exist. Some of the most common types among seniors include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In a lot of cases, people with anxiety disorders also have depression.
  • Dementia—Most people are aware of Alzheimer's disease, but it's important to know that several other forms of dementia exist as well. They can cause a person's memory to deteriorate and lead to other symptoms such as confusion, personality changes, erratic behavior, and communication difficulties. Some professionals prefer to classify dementia as a brain disorder rather than as a mental illness. But, regardless of how it's classified, it can have a substantial impact on a person's mental well-being. That's why, when it comes to the health of seniors and the elderly, mental disorders like dementia need our awareness—even if they aren't always easy to classify or talk about.
  • Delirium—This temporary mental condition is mostly experienced by elderly people who've been hospitalized for a separate medical issue. In fact, delirium is often caused by medical problems. It's usually characterized by sudden symptoms like confusion, an inability to focus, or a spike or rapid decrease in body movement. Because people with delirium may also experience a troubled consciousness, their judgment is sometimes severely impaired.
  • Bipolar disorder—Also known as manic-depressive illness, this condition is characterized by distinct changes in a person's mood and behavior. Someone with bipolar disorder will have manic episodes (during which he or she feels energized, elated, or generally "up") and depressive episodes (during which he or she feels sad, hopeless, or generally "down). Seniors with this condition may have difficulty carrying out their daily activities.
  • Late-onset schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis—Psychiatric professionals used to think that only young people developed schizophrenia. But that belief has been proven wrong. In fact, psychosis of almost any type can manifest later in life. As a result, some elderly people experience symptoms like delusions, sensory hallucinations, false beliefs, and paranoia. And those can lead to increased isolation because of erratic and unusual social behavior.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—Seniors who have witnessed or survived a dangerous or shocking event can develop this challenging mental condition. Long after the event, they may continue to have "fight-or-flight" feelings, especially when triggered by certain sights, sounds, smells, or situations. Even when they are safe at home, they can experience a host of symptoms that make it difficult to live a normal life.
  • Addiction—Some seniors have substance abuse problems or behavioral addictions that negatively impact their lives. But, when it comes to the elderly, addiction is frequently overlooked by friends, family, or caregivers. And doctors sometimes fail to diagnose addictions in the elderly since the symptoms can mirror those of other mental health conditions.

Risk Factors for Seniors

Mental health issues can have all kinds of different causes. In fact, they usually aren't caused by just one thing. Multiple factors—social, physical, and psychological—can interlink and lead to mental conditions that interfere with a person's life. Even if you're currently a healthy senior, mental health problems may develop in you or someone you care about at some point in the future. So it's wise to be aware of the risk factors, which can include things like:

  • Medical problems—A wide variety of medical conditions can contribute to the development of mental health issues such as depression. Examples include conditions that often affect older adults, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson's disease. In addition, some medications can increase the risk of developing depression or other mental health conditions.
  • Loss of independence—When seniors lose their ability to fully take care of themselves on a daily basis, they can be at a higher risk of experiencing setbacks to their mental well-being. Factors like chronic pain, decreased mobility, and other functional challenges can all increase that risk.
  • Loss of close friends or family members—It's normal and necessary to grieve for those we love and care about when they pass away. But many seniors experience more grieving than younger people as they begin to lose more of their long-time friends, partners, or spouses.
  • A drop in economic status—For many seniors, retirement requires a simpler lifestyle than they're used to, which often means engaging in different activities or moving into new residential settings. The impacts of those changes can be compounded if they have any disabilities that require even bigger adjustments to their living situations.
  • Loneliness or social isolation—Older adults are often more prone to feelings of abandonment or isolation as a result of disabilities, medical problems, the loss of people in their lives, or other factors. And those feelings have been shown to contribute to the development of depression and other mental health problems.
  • Periods of heightened stress—Life is full of common stressors. But anything that causes more stress than normal—or that causes prolonged stress—can play a significant role in the development of a mental health issue. Examples include stressors such as traumatic events, taking care of a chronically or terminally ill loved one, or major changes to finances, important relationships, or living circumstances.
  • Elder abuse or neglect—Did you know that about 10 percent of all seniors experience some kind of elder abuse? 1 It's true. Some seniors are emotionally, physically, psychologically, sexually, or financially abused—often by people they know or trust. The result is a loss of dignity that, for obvious reasons, can lead to various types of mental health challenges.
  • Poor nutrition—Regardless of whether it's by choice or due to neglect or financial reasons, having a poor diet can deprive a person of the vital nutrients that are necessary for a healthy brain and mind. Over time, a lack of proper nutrition can erode a person's mental well-being. By the same token, regularly drinking alcohol or consuming illicit substances can also cause biological changes that heighten the risk of developing a mental disorder.
  • Family history—For some people, genetics play a contributing role in their mental health. A predisposition to certain mental disorders can be passed on from one generation to the next, which means that some people are at higher risk than others based on nothing more than their family histories.

Common Warning Signs

Sometimes, it's easy to tell that you or somebody you love may be experiencing mental health difficulties. But, sometimes, the signs aren't so obvious. They might be hidden or overlooked. That's why it's essential to know what to watch out for. When it comes to seniors (and mental health issues that might be affecting them), warning signs may include things such as:

  • Sad or hopeless feelings that last more than a couple of weeks
  • Unusual changes to mood, appetite, or energy levels
  • Persistent sleeping difficulties or over-sleeping
  • Persistent troubles with concentration
  • Restlessness or feelings of being "on-edge"
  • Decreased ability to cope with everyday stress
  • Heightened irritability, hostility, or anger
  • High-risk behaviors or actions that scare other people
  • Persistent worrying about relationships or health or financial matters
  • Obsessive thoughts or compulsive actions that disrupt normal day-to-day living
  • A sense of emotional numbness
  • Confusion in familiar settings or recurring difficulties with memory
  • Heavier-than-normal alcohol consumption
  • Excessive consumption of prescribed medications
  • Persistent pain, headaches, or issues with digestion
  • Suicidal thinking

If you or somebody you love is displaying warning signs like those above, seek professional help right away. The earlier you get assistance, the more effective any treatment is likely to be.

Prevention & Treatment: Mental Health Tips for Seniors

Everybody deserves to live with a sense of positive mental well-being. It's a big part of healthy aging. And it's definitely possible to achieve and sustain. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that we're worth it. You and everyone you care about has a right to feel good. With that in mind, here are some tips for looking after your mental well-being:

  • Get help immediately if you're in distress—Don't wait, especially if you're contemplating suicide. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Or go to the emergency room of your nearest hospital.
  • Remember that you're never too old to make changes—It's never too late to make lifestyle choices that can better support your mental well-being. Even small changes can add up to make a big difference.
  • Eat a healthy diet—Good nutrition can have powerful and positive effects on your mental health and overall vitality. Focus on eating a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean and high-quality proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods. Whenever possible, avoid sugar, refined carbs, and heavily processed foods.
  • Stay physically active—Exercise multiple times each week. At the very least, go for frequent walks if you're able to. The more you can incorporate aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises into your weekly routine, the better you're likely to feel both physically and mentally.
  • Maintain good sleeping habits—It's a myth that seniors need less sleep than younger adults. They actually need the same amount, even though the exact amount varies from person to person. So get into the habit of going to bed and getting up at the same times each day. If you're having any difficulties, see your doctor. It's possible that you may have a medical problem such as sleep apnea. Getting enough sleep is vital for good mental health.
  • Exercise your mind—Keep learning new things. Fill out crossword puzzles or engage in other activities or brain teasers that actively stimulate your mind.
  • Take care of medical issues right away—Don't let any new physical problems linger for too long without seeking treatment. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that your mental well-being will be impacted.
  • Get the support of friends and family—Maintaining strong social connections is one of the best ways to help prevent mental health issues from disrupting your life. Accept the support of people who are willing and eager to listen and let you share your feelings. Good friends and supportive loved ones can help you improve your outlook and lower your stress. They also may be able to help you solve any practical issues that affect the quality of your life, such as finding reliable transportation or managing your finances.
  • Stay involved—Participating in a social club or volunteering for a cause you care about can help you feel connected and filled with purpose. Staying involved in your community can also boost your self-esteem and enable you to become more resilient to stress.
  • Talk with your doctor—If you suspect that you may be experiencing a problem with your mental health, then don't hesitate to see your family doctor. He or she may be able to start you on a course of treatment that will help you recover. Alternatively, he or she may put you in touch with specialized professionals or local mental health services for the elderly and senior population in your community.
  • Get a second opinion—Some doctors have a hard time correctly diagnosing mental health conditions in seniors since their symptoms can be very different than those of younger patients. Seniors also frequently have multiple medical conditions and take multiple medications, which can make diagnosing their mental health issues more complex. So, if you can, try to find a professional who specializes in geriatric health care or geriatric psychiatry for a second opinion.
  • Stand your ground—Ignore people who try to tell you to "suck it up" when your mental well-being feels threatened. Try to put aside your fear of what other people may think. Don't let their ignorance or negative attitudes stand in the way of your treatment and recovery. Also, don't be afraid to stand up for your personal security and sense of independence. Nobody has the right to abuse your trust or prevent you from seeking the help you need.
  • Follow through with your treatment—Your age doesn't have to be a barrier to getting better. In fact, seniors can recover from mental health issues just as successfully as younger people. Take any medications that have been prescribed for you and try to attend all of your appointments for therapy or other kinds of treatment.
  • Seek additional assistance—Sometimes we need more support than our friends and family can offer. Thankfully, most communities have support groups and programs that are aimed at helping seniors and the elderly with various issues, including mental health. They can help you find other people to talk to who've been through similar situations. And many of them can provide free services to help you in your recovery. It's also worth exploring various books about mental health, attending local workshops, and visiting the websites of trusted mental health organizations.

Be proactive when it comes to your mental well-being. And don't be afraid to talk about it. You have every right to do whatever you can to feel your very best.