When many of us consider ways to keep aging at bay, we might think about embracing a healthier diet, becoming more physically active, or even getting a bit of surgical work done. You don’t even have to go under the knife to reverse the obvious signs of aging, as minimally invasive procedures like dermal fillers are highly effective — a fact that’s made them one of the top five such procedures that people undergo every year. But while you can certainly undergo a physical transformation to reduce the signs of aging, the psychological impact of growing older may often be tougher to prevent and to treat. What’s more, the issue of mental health among seniors is one that’s often ignored — yet it’s one that affects all of us.
Statistics show that 26% of American adults live with a diagnosable mental disorder during a given year. Anywhere from 1-5% of those seniors who live at home suffer from major depression, while that percentage rises to 14% among seniors who require home healthcare or dwell in assisted living facilities. Estimates show that the prevalence of depression among older adults is expected to more than double by 2050. Reports of seniors who struggle with depression, anxiety, dementia, and schizophrenia are on the rise, as are suicide rates among older Americans. What’s more, latest National Poll on Healthy Aging, as reported by TIME, found that one-third of seniors are lonely. And unfortunately, only 10% of seniors receive the mental health services they need due to stigmas surrounding this issue and aging in general.
About 80% of seniors live with at least one chronic disease, and 68% have two or more. But studies also show that primary care physicians may be underestimating mental health issues among seniors. Personal physicians are the most likely to come into contact with older patients who may have depression or anxiety, yet they diagnose depression accurately less than half the time. The symptoms of depression manifest themselves in different ways among older adults, so the typical markers of this condition may be harder to define. Instead of exhibiting poor work performance, an older adult with depression may show signs of memory loss. As a result, they might be misdiagnosed with dementia due to a lack of awareness among medical professionals.
As Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care and director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California San Diego, explained to NextAvenue.org: “Older people have different needs when it comes to mental health support. They experience sensory deficits, skin perception issues, mobility issues and memory loss that is not necessarily associated with dementia. They need specialists who understand these issues, and just as importantly, they need specialists who have empathy.”
What’s more, a lack of mental health care among seniors can actually lead to the development of memory diseases later on. According to sources, there may be a link between depression or loneliness and dementia risk, though experts aren’t exactly sure what the source of the connection is yet. Social isolation and loneliness have already been linked to other health issues, such as cardiovascular disease and early death. Some research even suggests that loneliness could be as deadly as being overweight or smoking.
Ultimately, that has huge ramifications for seniors who have otherwise led healthy lives but who suddenly find themselves alone in old age. Making efforts to end the stigma surrounding mental health — and to dispel the idea that becoming depressed as we age is “normal” — will likely go a long way. Unfortunately, providing more socialization opportunities or making attempts to talk to our loved ones about their feelings may not be enough to tackle the problem on a personal level. But by investing in these kinds of services before the negative impact of mental health issues take effect, it’s likely that there could be a positive impact on senior healthcare spending and on quality of life among a rapidly growing demographic.