Mental illness in seniors under-diagnosed - KRISTV.com | Continuous News Coverage | Corpus Christi

Mental illness in seniors under-diagnosed

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Did you know that about 20 percent of adults aged 55 or older have experienced some type of mental health concern?

Nearly one in three of those seniors do not receive treatment. 

Mental illness in seniors is hard to diagnose and is under-diagnosed or mistaken for other chronic health conditions.

The truth is, addressing mental health issues in older populations requires paying more attention, not less, when it comes to aging adults.

"With the elderly, we see physical problems. Inability to do the things they used to be able to do. Now they are more restricted in their activities, and they find themselves at a loss. Also, unfortunately as people get older, they start to lose more friends, more family, and become more isolated. So a generational aspect compounds the mental health aspect," said Medical Director of Psychiatry at Bayview Behavioral Hospital  Dr. John Lusins.

Seniors also tend to downplay their symptoms to family, caregivers, and their doctors, making mental illness difficult to spot.

"If you see signs such as your loved ones talking about being hopeless, worthless, having less energy, less interest, they are just isolating when previously they were up and about and joining in family activities. It could be things like dementia, depression, or anxiety," said Dr. Lusins.

The good news is, when accurately diagnosed, mental health issues are just as treatable in older populations as in younger, but it takes commitment and understanding.

"One of the things we try to do is a multi-pronged approach to mental health in the elderly. Looking, of course, at the biological aspect with medications, but we also encourage therapy and socialization, making sure they have the proper resources. We also can hook up people with home health agencies that can go into the home to insure things are safe and that medications are dispensed properly," said Dr. Lusins.

About 5 percent of depression in the elderly go undiagnosed. Being educated about the warning signs can help make detection of mental illness easier for loved ones and care givers. 

Facts about mental illness in the elderly

  • You might not be surprised to read that the most common mental health issue among the elderly is severe cognitive impairment or dementia.
  • Depression and mood disorders are also fairly widespread among older adults, and disturbingly, they often go undiagnosed and untreated. In a 2006 survey, 5% of seniors 65 and older reported having current depression, and about 10.5% reported a diagnosis of depression at some point in their lives (CDC).
  • Often going along with depression in many individuals, anxiety is also one of the more prevalent mental health problems among the elderly.  Anxiety disorders encompass a range of issues, from obsessive-compulsive disorder (including hoarding syndrome) to phobias to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 7.6% of those over 65 have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, reports the CDC.

Causes and Risk Factors for Senior Mental Illness

One of the ongoing problem with diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in seniors is the fact that older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than psychiatric complaints (CDC).

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation lists a number of potential triggers for mental illness in the elderly:

  • 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

Symptoms of Mental Illness

As our loved ones age, it's natural for some changes to occur. Regular forgetfulness is one thing, however; persistent memory loss or cognitive impairment is another thing and potentially serious. The same goes for extreme anxiety or long-term depression. Caregivers should keep an eye out for the following warning signs, which could indicate a mental health concern:

  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

Don't hesitate to seek help if your loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms. There are professionals out there willing and able to help, including your family doctor, who is always a good place to start. 

You could also consult a counselor, a psychologist, or a geriatric psychiatrist.

Bayview Behavioral Hospital is another important resource. 

There is a dedicated Geriatric Inpatient treatment program for individuals ages 50 and older who are experiencing emotional, cognitive or behavioral symptoms.

The important part is not to stand by and suffer alone. With the combined efforts of families, caregivers, and mental health professionals, we can help ward off mental illness in our older loved ones and make sure they are on the right track to healthy aging.

To find help in the Corpus Christi area, visit Corpus Christi Medical Center at www.ccmedicalcenter.com.

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