Linda Lewis Griffith

Mental health doesn’t have to take a back seat to aging

Getting older means that you’re more prone to physical aches and pains. But you’re also more likely to develop psychological problems as your hair turns to gray. Statistics show that one out of five people over the age of 55 will suffer from some form of mental illness and that seniors are four times more likely to have depression than the general population.

This data has far-reaching social implications.

In the United States, the proportion of older adults is expected to increase to more than 20 percent by the year 2030, creating a heavy demand on psychiatric services.

Unfortunately, depression and other disorders are often undiagnosed and untreated in older patients. According to the National Institutes of Health, only one in six elders with clinical depression receives the proper diagnosis and treatment. Less than 3 percent receive treatment by a mental health specialist.

The American Society on Aging sites numerous issues that seriously impact emotional wellness in the elderly. Age-related changes, such as confusion or isolation, grief, illness and the use of alcohol or drugs can undermine how seniors think and function.

Depression affects nearly 20 percent of the older population, although sometimes it’s difficult to detect. The National Institute of Mental Health states that depression can appear different in different people, depending on the severity and the circumstances of each patient.

Seniors who are depressed may experience persistent sadness or empty feelings.

They can express hopelessness or pessimism about the future. Some are overwrought with guilt while others feel worthless.

Depressed elders may stop engaging in activities they once enjoyed. They can become irritable. They may also have problems concentrating, remembering details or making decisions. Sleep disturbances are also common. Seniors who are depressed may wake up early in the morning and be unable to fall back to sleep. Or they may report feeling fatigued and wanting to sleep throughout the day.

Finally, older adults are at an increased risk of suicide.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, the elderly account for 16.6 percent of all suicides, even though they make up less than 13 percent of the population.

Anxiety can be equally as devastating. While it was once believed that anxiety waned with age, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America reports that “anxiety is as common in the old as in the young, although how and when it appears is distinctly different in older adults.” Symptoms specific to seniors include: avoiding situations or social events that were once enjoyable; excessive or chronic worrying without reason or worrying more than the situation warrants; insomnia; and shortness of breath, trembling or irregular heartbeat.

The good news is that treatment for both anxiety and depression is available and generally successful. Programs involve taking an antidepressant medication in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to focus on such issues as grief, self-esteem, social connections and stress management. Talk to your physician to develop the plan that fits your needs. Mental illness doesn’t have to be a part of aging. When seniors recognize the symptoms and take prompt, appropriate measures, they improve their overall functioning and greatly enhance their quality of life.

Tips for staying sharp

Try these strategies to enhance your mental wellness well into your golden years:

If excessive sleep is a problem, limit yourself to one brief nap, then remain active the rest of the day.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit