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Mental Health Concerns and Aging

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The aging population may worry about replacing knees and encroaching memory loss, but emotional health is equallyand in some ways moreimportant. Good emotional health affects physical health, and vice versa. Depression, anxiety, and loneliness are not givens in this age group, yet older people are vulnerable to these and other mental health conditions. This is punctuated by the advancing age of Baby Boomers, who make up nearly one-quarter of the population. While mental health conditions are highly treatable, many older adults go undiagnosed and untreated. This equation may well impact the cost of healthcare in total, and it is no secret that the U.S. spends much more than other nations.

Loneliness and Aging

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Loneliness has been a longstanding problem for people across many age brackets. In fact, more than a third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely now and then; and some people, 15 to 30 percent, feel chronically lonely. The socially isolated are more likely to suffer anxiety, depression, stroke, heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, cognitive function, and other ailments. It can even increase the risk of dementia. Feeling socially isolated is acute for older adults, especially the elderly. A study from the University of California at San Francisco found that more than 40 percent of older people feel lonely regularly.

What are some of the signs of loneliness in seniors?

• Feeling negative

• Feeling that life is meaningless

• No self-worth 

• Feeling left behind

• No real connection with others

• Interactions feel surface level

• Few or no close friends

• Reliance on family members

• Feeling lonely even when in the company of others

• Fatigue

• Poor sleep

• Poor diet

Why are older adults more likely to suffer loneliness?

According to Pew Research, 27 percent of people age 60 and older live on their own--a group at high risk of isolation. It’s not a surprise that this age group feels the pain of disconnection; they are no longer working, their friends have moved away, their family members have died, and they contend with health issues. Mobility is just one problem among many, and if you cannot get around, people must come to you and that complicates matters even further.

Depression and Aging

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People may think that depression is part of normal aging, but that is not true. Old age does not mean eventual clinical depression. Feeling depressed at older ages, for whatever reason, is common. And who wouldn’t feel down? At old age, you cannot move around easily, you have all sorts of aches and pains. Grandmas and grandpas do sit around and share their ailments; My knees give out. My lower back hurts. My fingers are stiff. I wheeze when I breathe. That’s depressing. Moreover, as mentioned, older adults are still standing, while others are gone. That’s also depressing. It is hard to stay emotionally healthy with these many obstacles of advanced age.

What are some of the signs of depression in older adults?

• Withdrawal from normal activities

• Sadness

• Anxiousness

• Guilt

• Frequent crying 

• Moodiness

• Suicidal thoughts

• A feeling of worthlessness

• A feeling of helplessness

• Excessive worry

• Difficulty concentrating

• Restlessness

• Listlessness

• Fatigue

• Oversleeping

• Undersleeping

• Weight gain

• Weight Loss

• Physical pain, such as headaches

• Gastrointestinal pain

How many older adults have depression?

The CDC reports that one-fifth of older adults have some type of mental health concern, whether it is depression or anxiety or another problem. However, only a third of those who suffer get treatment. Some 5 percent report feeling depressed, while more than 10 percent receive a diagnosis at some point in old age.

Anxiety and Aging

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We all feel anxious and stressed now and then. Butterflies over an upcoming job interview, for example, is garden-variety jitteriness. When stress does its job right, your vigilance pays off, you even ace the interview and nail the job. However, severe anxiety can have detrimental effects and interrupt daily living. And a third of us will feel the distress of unmitigated anxiety sometime in our lives.

The aging population is more vulnerable than many other age groups. Full-blown anxiety can have ill effects. For one, anxiety shortens the length of telomeres, the end caps of chromosomes; when these protective caps get shorter and shorter, cells die off and we age much faster.

What are the mental health signs of anxiety?

When the mind shouts danger and fear sets in, anxiety can show itself in various forms. Sometimes it is mental, other times it is physical. Here are some emotional changes you may see in your loved one, many are similar to the signs of depression:

• Feeling scared

• Feeling restless

• Being irrational 

• Being forgetful

• Feeling confused

• Being irritable or grumpy

• Obsessive thoughts

• Compulsive behavior

• Feeling panicked

• Substance abuse

• No interest in normal activities

• Will not leave home

• Withdrawal from life

What are the physical signs of anxiety?

When anxiety presents itself physically, it may come in the form of a headache or stomach ache, among many other symptoms:

• Difficulty breathing

• Dizziness or feeling lightheaded

• Sweating

• Nausea

• Headaches

• Chest pain

• Difficulty with vision

• Digestive problems

• Muscle tension

• Feeling achy and sore

• Fatigue

• Weight gain

• Weight loss

• Poor sleep

• Nightmares

• Oversleeping

• Under-sleeping

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