Mental Illness is not a “Normal” Part of Aging

May 4, 2017

by: The My Medicare Matters Team in partnership with Mental Health America

One in four older Americans will experience some type of mental illness in their lives. Yet mental illness remains critically underdiagnosed and undertreated in the baby boomer population. In fact, two-thirds of older adults with mental health problems do not receive the treatment they need.

If mental illness is such a pressing issue in the older population, why do so many boomers remain undiagnosed and untreated? Part of the problem may be Americans’ negative stereotypes about aging—the idea that it is “normal” for someone to grow lonelier or more unhappy as they age.

Contrary to these negative stereotypes, feelings of depression, excessive anxiety, or being “better off dead” are not normal parts of aging. They are all signs of treatable medical conditions, no different than diabetes or hypertension.  Read on to learn more about identifying the symptoms of two of the most common mental health conditions in the 55-plus population: anxiety and depression. No one should have to suffer in silence—help your friends and loved ones get the help they deserve!

Anxiety: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Have you ever suffered from excessive nervousness or fear? Do you sometimes experience chest pains, headaches, or gastrointestinal problems? You may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety.  A recent study found that between 3% and 14% of older adults meet the criteria for a diagnosable anxiety disorder. And an even greater percentage have symptoms of anxiety that may not amount to diagnosis of a disorder, but still significantly impact their functioning—around 27% of adults under the care of an aging professional.

Common anxiety disorders include panic disorder (characterized by panic attacks, or sudden feelings of terror that strike repeatedly); obsessive compulsive disorder (suffering from repetitive unwanted thoughts or rituals); post-traumatic stress disorder (nightmares, depression, and other persistent symptoms after a traumatic event); phobias (an extreme fear of something that poses little danger); and generalized anxiety disorder (chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday activities).

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of anxiety or any of the above anxiety disorders, it is important to seek medical help immediately. You can start by assessing your own mental health through this online screening. Created by nonprofit Mental Health America, the screening is a free and anonymous way to learn about your mental health. While this tool is not the same as an official diagnosis, it can be a helpful way to start a conversation with your medical provider or loved ones.

Doctors typically treat anxiety through a combination of therapy and medication, but some people may benefit from just one form of treatment. To learn more about diagnosing and seeking treatment for anxiety, check out our “Anxiety in Older Adults” fact sheet.

Depression: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Are you concerned that you or someone you know may be suffering from depression? Common symptoms of depression include extended periods of sadness, loss of pleasure in everyday activities, poor sleep, quickly losing or gaining weight, and loss of energy or the ability to focus on everyday tasks.  Many people who suffer from anxiety may also experience depression, and vice versa. A recent study found that 27% of older adults assessed by aging professionals met the criteria for a diagnosis of major depression.

Depression not only severely limits quality of life and someone’s ability to take care of themselves, it can also lead to physical health problems, such as slower recovery from physical illness. Depressed people are also at a greater risk for suicidal thoughts and actions.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, it is important to seek the help of a mental health professional immediately. You can start by assessing your own mental health through this online screening. While this tool is not the same as an official diagnosis, it can be a helpful way to start a conversation with your medical provider or loved ones.

As with anxiety, doctors typically treat depression through a combination of therapy and medication. To learn more about diagnosing and seeking treatment for depression, check out our “Depression in Older Adults” fact sheet.

Getting help with costs: Medicare + Mental Health Treatment

Worrying about health insurance costs should never be a barrier to treatment. Medicare helps cover a wide range of mental health services, including screening for mental illness, lab tests ordered by your doctor, and visits with a doctor, psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or clinical social worker. Part D helps cover the drugs you may need to treat a mental health condition.  To learn more about gaining access to the mental health services available to you through Medicare, take the Medicare Questionnaire.