Most of us like to picture ourselves moving gracefully into our golden years. Maybe we will slow down physically a bit as our joints and bones feel the effects of advancing age, but we don’t often think of challenges we might face in terms of mental health. Worldwide, the population of adults over the age of 60 is set to nearly double from 900 million to two billion by the year 2050. And the fact is that in this population, just over 20% of people suffer from a mental or neurological disorders, accounting for nearly 7% of the disabilities in this age range.
Risk factors for poor mental health
Risk factors for poor mental health in adults over 60 include:
- Other chronic conditions
- Loss of independence
- Changes in financial outlook
- Death of a spouse or friends
The two predominant mental health issues that affect adults over 60 are dementia and depression.
The key characteristic of dementia is a decline in cognitive ability that impacts daily life. This can include memory loss, fuzzy thinking or inability to focus, loss of balance or motor control, and confusion. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. Worldwide nearly 48 million people are diagnosed with dementia, with many more going undiagnosed and untreated.
Depression is a condition that can cause tremendous suffering among people of any age. Deep sadness, fatigue, irritability, and inability to concentrate are characteristics of this disease, which affects an estimated 7% of older adults.
Both of these mental health issues carry high costs. Directly, those with dementia and depression have poorer health outcomes when also faced with chronic illness such as hypertension and diabetes. Indirectly, mental health conditions can cost families and friends time with their loved ones. Workplaces that can benefit from the experience and skill of older adults lose out on their expertise.
Mood and neurological disorders are not inevitable as we age. There are concrete steps we can take to improve mental health, before and after age 60.
1. Consider pet ownership
Especially for those older adults who find themselves with no relatives or friends living close by, pet ownership can offer tremendous benefits. One study in 1990 found that older adults with pets utilized medical care far less frequently than those without pets. Dogs in particular seemed to foster a sense of responsibility and connection among their owners, a connection that resulted in fewer doctor visits.
Researchers at Taylor & Francis have also found that owning a pet can increase physical activity and reduce isolation. Study author Keith Anderson from the University of Montana noted that there are some barriers to pet ownership, especially for low-income people, but that shelters and other programs are working creatively to find solutions. Many older adults worry about fees associated with pet ownership and who will take care of their pet if they fall ill.
Anderson noted that resources to address these concerns were increasing in number and availability, saying:
“Programs are emerging that facilitate the adoption of pets by older adults. These programs match older adults with adult shelter animals and provide support throughout the adoption and ownership processes. Lower-income older adults often live in buildings where there are fees and deposits associated with owning pets. We need creative solutions to address these financial barriers.”
2. Pick up the phone
For those for whom pet ownership is not an option, simply picking up the phone can improve mental health. A study from the Wake Forest School of Medicine in conjunction with Washington University in St. Louis found that talk therapy conducted via telephone is effective for treating anxiety disorder among older adults. These are important findings, especially for the elderly in rural areas, where mental health services are scarce and the treatment protocol leans heavily on sedative drugs.
Eric J. Lenze, MD, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, pointed out that as the baby boomers age, the current understaffed mental healthcare system is woefully inadequate to meet their needs. Relying on medication to improve mental health can result in other serious consequences:
“The drugs that many older adults receive, particularly benzodiazepines for anxiety, can cause cognitive impairments and motor problems. But seniors who are anxious or have insomnia are receiving a skyrocketing number of prescriptions for these drugs, particularly in rural America. That’s a recipe for disaster because giving seniors benzodiazepines can contribute to serious and expensive consequences, such as broken hips, an acceleration in dementia and a general decline in an older person’s ability to function.”
This type of therapy is at least as successful as face-to-face therapy when it comes to minimizing the use of medications for mental health issues.
3. Become the life of the party
As we age, we may feel less like living it up and staying out until the wee small hours of the morning. While all-nighters are not necessary to improve mental health, new research is finding that an active, involved social life, complete with social goals, are key to better mental health. A study published by the American Psychological Association found that even for those seniors with other health challenges, an active social life helped increase study participants’ sense of well-being later in life.
Interestingly, family involvement and socialization were not directly connected to an increased sense of well-being.
Gert Wagner from the German Institute for Economic Research, one of the co-authors of the study, pointed out that while social goals and engagement may result in feelings of competence and the idea that seniors are contributing to society, families don’t necessarily offer the same rewards:
“A socially engaged lifestyle often involves cognitive stimulation and physical activity, which in turn may protect against the neurological and physical factors underlying cognitive decline,[but family] life is often a mixed bag and represents not only a source of joy, but also of worry and tensions, stress, and sorrow. For example, valuing one’s partner often makes people vulnerable to declines in well-being when the partner suffers from cognitive or physical limitations. Similarly, relationships with adult children can be ambivalent, especially when children differ in values and have not attained (in the eyes of their parents) educational and interpersonal success.”
It can be difficult to find balance between social events that are enriching and those that are obligatory, but the bottom line is that staying engaged is a crucial step to improve mental health.
With new studies showing that loneliness and isolation are just as much of a threat to senior longevity as obesity, it is important to take concrete steps to improve mental health in the elderly. If you are a senior, what makes you feel more connected and mentally healthy?