A look at mental illness in the elderly

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and mental health advocacy groups across North America are using this month as an opportunity to educate and inform the general public about the widespread reality of mental illness.

And although mental illness does not discriminate by age, race, sex or income bracket, it does disproportionally affect seniors and the elderly more than other age groups. About 20 per cent of people aged 65 and older suffer from some kind of mental illness, according to data from the American Psychological Association.

Alzheimer's is strongly correlated to older age

Although the numbers are dramatic, mental illness is not a monolith. Rather, mental illness can take multiple forms, from Alzheimer’s Disease to depression, as well as a wide variety of types of dementia.

Here is a quick guide to the most prominent forms of mental illness among seniors:

Alzheimer’s Disease: With about five million sufferers in the United States, Alzheimer’s is also the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. The disease degenerates brain cells, and causes sufferers to become unable to perform simple daily tasks, and eventually it can be fatal. Alzheimer’s is strongly correlated to age, with about 95% of Americans with the disease are aged 65 and older.

Depression: As with Alzheimer’s Disease, depression affects people of all ages, but seniors and the elderly suffer disproportionally, and the risk for depression rises with advanced age. Suicide rates, which serves as a common yardstick for depression levels, is about twice the rate in the United States for people aged 75 and older, compared to younger Americans.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI): Advanced age can typically be expected to affect certain changes in the human body – vision problems and slower movement, for example – some cognitive decline is also not unusual, and may not be anything to worry about. However, more advanced signs, such as consistent forgetfulness, may be a sign of MCI, which is not technically a form of dementia, but is still a condition that can cause difficulty and hardship among sufferers.

There are many other forms of mental illness and dementia where seniors face suffering, but according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the most important steps caregivers and family members of seniors – as well as older people themselves – are preventative. Although some diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, are not currently not known to be themselves preventable, physical and mental exercise, as well as regular medical checkups and seeking immediate medical attention at the sight of anything unusual, will be the best measures older people and their loved ones can take.