Almost 20 percent of older adults, ages 55+, experience specific mental disorders that are not part of normal aging. Unrecognized or untreated, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, alcohol and drug misuse and abuse, anxiety, late-life schizophrenia, and other conditions can be severely impairing, even fatal. In the United States, the rate of suicide is highest among older adults relative to all other age groups.
As we look forward to longer life expectancies we strive to age with good health. Good health includes both physical and mental well-being. A healthy mind contributes to a healthy body.
For the last several years, new research has emerged that shows there are many things we can do to keep our minds healthy. Many of the same things we do to keep our bodies healthy contribute to healthy minds. Physical activity and a diet that helps lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure also helps to keep our minds healthy by allowing our bodies to deliver oxygen-rich blood to our brains. In addition, activities that stimulate our minds, like crossword puzzles, reading, writing, and learning new things, help to keep our brains healthy. Staying engaged with the people around us and our communities plays an equally big part in staying mentally fit.
While some forgetfulness is normal in older age, persistent memory loss is not. And because we experience more loss as we age (family members who move away, the death of loved ones), we are bound to experience more sadness. However, prolonged periods of sadness or depression are not normal as we age.
If you experience any of the following warning signs listed below, or notice that an older relative or friend is experiencing any of these, seek help. Older adults can first start by talking to friends or loved ones, and find help from their family physician, internist, psychiatrist, or geriatric psychiatrist, to name just a few professionals who can provide assistance.
- Depressed mood or sadness lasting longer than two weeks
- Unexplained crying spells
- Loss of interest or pleasure in the things and people that were previously enjoyable
- Jumpiness or tiredness, lethargy, fatigue, or loss of energy
- Irritability, quarrelsomeness
- Loss or increase in appetite or weight change
- Sleep change such as insomnia (not being able to sleep) or sleeping more than usual
- Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, hopelessness, helplessness
- Decreased ability to think, concentrate, or make decisions
- Repeated thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts – seek help from a medical professional immediately
- Aches and pains, constipation, or other physical problems that cannot otherwise be explained
- Confusion and disorientation
- Memory loss, loss of recent, short-term memory
- Social withdrawal
- Trouble handling finances, working with numbers, paying the bills
- Change in appearance, standard of dress
- Problems maintaining the home, the yard
Source: Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General and the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation