Mental Health Issues Are Not a Normal Part of Aging

America’s population is aging. Approximately 75 million Americans will be over age 65 by 2030. The cohort of people aged 65 and over is currently growing at a significantly faster rate than the group of Americans under the age of 45. 

Many older Americans struggle with mental health issues. A 2012 study from the Institute on Medicine found that approximately one in five older adults in the US experience a mental illness, substance use disorder, or both. While that seems like a lot, it also means 80 percent do not experience mental health issues. 

Elderhood has become an increasingly prolonged and important life stage compared with previous epochs of human history. Like other life stages, elderhood should be about “growth and adaptation, maintenance and loss, and not about disease, decline, and death,” said gerontologist Jennifer Inker in her 2018 presentation on the aging process as part of the Williamsburg Place Lecture Series. 

While a certain amount of physical decline and loss of mental acuity are part of the human aging process, dementia, depression, and suicidal ideation are not normal features of getting older.  If these conditions do occur they should be recognized and treated, not dismissed as being part of old age. 

The fact that they are often misinterpreted as “natural” aging, means that many seniors do not get the treatment they need. Doctors and relatives dismiss the symptoms and the elderly themselves don’t report them, all perceiving those symptoms as part of the natural aging process. 

A few years ago, a telephone survey published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showed the likelihood of older adults underreporting their mental health issues and symptoms. The survey revealed that half of the adults over age 65 with probable mental illness were notably less likely to be receiving any mental health treatment than younger adults.

If young people complain about not being able to sleep, lack of energy and poor appetite, most doctors will suspect their patients are suffering from depression. If an 80-year-old person presents with the same symptoms, they might be overlooked, especially if other physical health problems take precedence. At that age, changes in mood, vitality, activity level, and personality are often erroneously attributed to aging, while the possibility of treatable mental illness is unfortunately not considered.

This is tragic because mental health has also an impact on physical health, and vice versa. Both aspects of well-being require equal attention because they reinforce each other. A debilitating heart condition may cause depression and untreated major depression may have a serious impact on physical health. It may also tempt patients to seek relief from their symptoms by misusing drugs and alcohol.

The Pavilion at Williamsburg Place offers a geriatric program specifically designed specifically for adults ages 55 and over. Patients may present with symptoms including behavioral disturbances, severe depression with suicidal thoughts, anxiety, hallucinations, and delusions. Common admission diagnoses include dementia, depression, anxiety, mood and behavior changes, and substance misuse.

As the aging process progresses, it is often necessary for patients to adjust to this new life stage. They can learn how to deal with new difficulties and successfully adjust to their limitations. A comprehensive discharge plan is designed to ensure that each individual has access to the required services and support. Whenever possible, we help our patients to return to their regular lives and home environment.