Aging and mental health

Seniors (people aged 60 and over) make valuable contributions to society as family members, advisors, friends, volunteers and workers. Mental health and well-being are just as important at this age as at any other time of life. However, age-related biases can negatively affect peoples’ attitudes towards seniors. Many people mistakenly believe that mental health problems in seniors are “normal” and an inherent part of the aging process. But in fact, seniors experience mental health problems at the same rate as the rest of the population.

It’s important to understand the signs of mental health disorders in seniors because they frequently show different symptoms than younger people. Seniors may focus on physical ailments, such as pain or headaches, as a way of hiding their psychological distress.

AAs people age, life becomes more challenging because physical illnesses, such as diabetes or osteoarthritis, often occur in tandem with mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. Having to deal with multiple issues is a part of the aging process. This makes caring for seniors more complicated, because mental health affects physical health—and vice versa.

For example, studies show that seniors with physical health problems have higher rates of depression than those in good health. Conversely, when left untreated, depression in an older person with heart disease can have a negative impact on heart health.

Seniors have unique mental health risk factors. The biggest risk factor for developing a mental health problem is the presence of achronic illness. Chronic illness can lead to decreased mobility, the onset of chronic pain or other health problems requiring long-term care. This can result in significant life changes that affect mental health.

Seniors often must adjust to numerous changes in a short period of time. They are more likely to experience events such as the death of a loved one, a shift in social status or a reduction in income. All these stress factors can lead to isolation, loneliness and psychological distress in seniors.

Older people are also vulnerable to physical, verbal, psychological, financial and sexual abuse. Current data suggest that one in ten older adults is the victim of abuse. Elder abuse doesn’t just lead to physical injury—it can also have serious and sometimes lasting psychological consequences, including depression and anxiety.

It’s important to look out for signs of mental health problems in seniors, as they can have major repercussions on quality of life and physical health. Effective treatments are available, so please don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor. For more information on the signs of specific mental health disorders in seniors, see our Mental illness information sheets.

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