Mental health problems are common among older adults, but they are often overlooked or dismissed as a natural part of the aging process.
Everyone is unique, and various factors often influence a person’s ability to experience anxiety or sadness. The most important thing is to develop the ability to recognize signs and symptoms and seek help, even when challenging situations cannot always be changed or the source cannot be pinpointed.
In this blog post, we will delve into the various factors that can contribute to mental health problems in older adults. By understanding these factors, we can better equip ourselves to provide support and care for older adults in need.
Importance Of Mental Health In Older Adults
Good mental health can have positive effects on many areas of life. For older adults, mental health is especially important because it can impact their productivity and quality of work. When mentally strong, older adults are more likely to work quickly and produce higher-quality work.
In addition to work, good mental health can also benefit personal relationships. Being emotionally stable can help individuals provide their family and friends with quality time, affection, and support. By contrast, experiencing emotional hardship can make it more difficult to help loved ones.
Mental health is closely linked to personal thoughts and feelings. A person’s overall mental health is related to their sense of self-worth. Having confidence is often a sign of good mental health. People with sound mental health are more likely to focus on their positive traits and have goals that aim for a long and happy life.
Why Do People Become More At Risk For Mental Health Problems As They Age?
As people age, they become more susceptible to mental health problems due to various factors. The pressures of later life, such as the loss of skills and a decrease in functional ability, can lead to stress. Additionally, restricted mobility, chronic pain, frailty, and other health issues that require long-term care can cause further stress. Older individuals are also more likely to experience bereavement and a decline in socioeconomic position following retirement.
Physical and mental health are intertwined, and poor physical health can contribute to mental health issues in older adults. For example, depression is more prevalent among older adults with physical health issues like heart disease than those in good health. If left untreated, depression in an older individual with heart disease can negatively impact the effectiveness of treatment.
Older adults can also experience abuse, including neglect, loss of dignity, and physical, verbal, psychological, financial, and sexual abuse. Such abuse can result in significant and long-lasting psychological effects, including sadness, anxiety, and physical harm.
Social relationships are essential for survival and well-being, but as people age, they may find themselves spending more time alone. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to an increased risk of mental health problems.
Is Brain Chemistry A Factor?
The human brain is incredibly complex, and some studies suggest that changes in specific brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine may be related to mental health issues. However, the exact relationship between brain chemistry and mental health problems is not fully understood, and there is little evidence to support claims that a person’s brain chemistry is the root cause of their mental health issues.
Despite this lack of strong evidence, some people still use brain chemistry as an explanation for mental health issues.
Other Possible Causes:
Some psychiatric medications can be effective in treating mental health disorder symptoms, but their effects can vary among individuals. These medications often work by altering brain chemistry.
Having a specific physical cause for difficult thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can make it easier to talk openly about experiences and seek support. Mental health disorders can feel deeply personal and challenging to explain.
Risk Factors For Mental Health Problems Among Older Adults
Mental illnesses are complex conditions that usually result from multiple risk factors. However, some individuals may be more resistant to mental health problems than others, depending on their exposure to these risk factors. Moreover, it is important to understand that each person has a distinct way of perceiving and dealing with risks, stress, and discomfort.
Below are some of the risk factors that can contribute to mental health problems among older adults.
Mental health conditions have a biological basis, like many chronic diseases. Physical, social, and environmental variables may also influence their growth. As a mental illness is a medical condition, like diabetes or heart disease, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
1. Physical health conditions
There are fundamental connections between physical and mental health. These connections often impact people’s quality of life, increase the need for public services like healthcare, and have negative effects on society.
The link between mental and physical health is particularly evident in cases of chronic illness. Some of the connections between physical and mental health include:
- Chronic physical illnesses increase the risk of poor mental health.
- Chronic physical illnesses are more likely to affect people with major mental health disorders.
- People with ongoing physical issues are more likely to experience mental illness.
Socioeconomic factors can also impact both physical health and mental health. Encouraging physical exercise, access to nutrient-rich meals, maintaining adequate income, and promoting social participation and support can help prevent mental and physical health issues. By increasing protective factors and decreasing risk factors, we can work towards promoting better health outcomes for everyone.
2. Neurological disorders
Diseases that affect the central and peripheral nervous systems are known as neurological disorders. This includes conditions that affect the muscles, autonomic nervous system, spinal cord, cranial nerves, peripheral nerves, and nerve roots.
Examples of these conditions include neurological illnesses caused by malnutrition, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, cerebrovascular diseases such as stroke, migraine and other headache disorders, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and neuro-infections.
3. Genetic predisposition
Long established by scientists, the tendency of many mental diseases to run in families points to possible hereditary causes. Autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia are a few examples of these conditions.
Having a close family member with a mental illness may increase your risk of developing a mental health condition, as certain mental health issues can run in families. However, it is important to note that having a family member with a mental illness does not necessarily mean that you will develop one as well. Other factors also play a role.
In addition to genetics, family history can also impact our mental health. Our family serves as an example of how to handle stress, and our responses can be influenced by observing how those close to us cope (or avoid coping) with strong emotions and challenging situations. For example, we may grow up in a household where mental health struggles are kept secret or discouraged from being discussed openly.
These perspectives and habits that we learn from our families can affect how we manage stress and approach mental health proactively.
Environmental factors such as chronic inflammation, chronic infections, certain metallic compounds, and exposure to UV radiation can contribute to cellular macromolecule damage or prevent their repair, leading to accelerated aging.
High levels of social capital in neighborhoods and workplaces have been linked to lower rates of mental health issues. Factors such as feeling safe in one’s community, having confidence in others, and reciprocity in social relationships can reduce the risk of mental distress. However, these environmental factors can also impact the mental health of older adults.
1. Life events
The most significant life events that increase the risk of mental health issues in later life among older adults include personal sickness, bereavement, and theft. Other negative life experiences have also been linked to mental health issues, such as an increased likelihood of late-life psychosis.
In addition, experiencing trauma can increase one’s susceptibility to mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people may turn to drugs, alcohol, or self-harm to cope with painful memories and feelings associated with trauma. Depending on how it affects an individual, trauma can make it challenging to carry out everyday tasks and activities.
2. Social isolation and loneliness
Older adults may experience social isolation for various reasons, such as aging, declining physical health, loss of family leadership roles, retirement, the loss of spouses and friends, disability, or illness.
Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation place older adults at risk for various health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, weakened immune systems, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even mortality.
Chronic social isolation has been linked to an increased risk of physical illnesses, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In elderly persons, it also increases the risk of dementia.
3. Retirement and financial stress
Financial stress can have a significant impact on your health and relationships, leading to symptoms such as arguments with loved ones, sleep disturbances, anger, fear, mood swings, fatigue, muscle pain, loss of appetite, decreased libido, and social withdrawal.
Additionally, retirement has been shown to increase the likelihood of receiving a chronic illness diagnosis, particularly cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, financial problems can negatively affect your mental health, leading to depression and anxiety due to the stress of debt and other financial challenges.
Bereavement and a decline in socioeconomic level with retirement are two situations older adults are more prone to encounter. Regrettably, these pressures can cause older adults to feel alone, lonely, or distressed. Physical and mental health are related, and vice versa.
1. Cognitive decline
The cognitive abilities of older adults can be affected by several factors, such as medication side effects, metabolic and endocrine abnormalities, delirium caused by illnesses like COVID-19 or urinary tract infections, depression, and dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common form.
The ability to focus, remember, and think logically is the result of a complex interplay of various circumstances. Although mental illnesses are often associated with cognitive impairment, there are other factors that also affect cognitive function.
2. Emotional regulation
Inadequate emotion control has been linked to various physical and mental health issues, including mood disorders. When examining the interplay between physical and mental health, it is crucial to consider the quality of life of older individuals. Events with high personal significance often trigger stronger emotional responses.
Given the growing expectation for individuals to live longer and healthier lives, emotional resilience is increasingly important. A deeper understanding of how people react emotionally can help us develop strategies to alleviate the suffering experienced by those facing declining health in the future. It is imperative to approach this issue from different cultural perspectives.
3. Personality traits
Managing symptoms of mental illnesses can be challenging when there are accompanying dysfunctional personality features, as they can trigger the onset of anxious, depressive, or psychotic symptoms.
For instance, agitation and anxiety are conditions that typically worsen with age and can cause noticeable changes in one’s personality. You or your loved one may feel more anxious or tense than usual, or become more irritable. Additionally, older adults may display impulsive and irresponsible behavior, which can also indicate changes in their personality.
The characteristics of a person, such as age, health status, presence of diseases, pain, and the effects of drugs or alcohol, can all affect their behavior. Emotional and psychological factors, such as personality, beliefs, expectations, emotions, and mental health, also play a role. Additionally, life experiences, such as family, culture, friends, and significant life events, can also impact behavior. Here are some of the behavioral factors that can affect the mental health of older adults.
1. Substance abuse
A co-occurring disorder, also known as a dual diagnosis, refers to the presence of both a drug addiction problem and a mental health condition, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety. Dealing with substance misuse, alcoholism, or drug addiction is already challenging, and it becomes even more difficult when a person is also struggling with mental health issues.
This is because some illicit substances can cause individuals to exhibit one or more symptoms of a mental health condition. Additionally, some people with mental health issues may use drugs as a form of self-medication, which can lead to substance misuse and addiction.
2. Poor diet and lack of exercise
One of the most important modifiable risk factors for non-communicable illnesses, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, is an unhealthy diet and lack of physical exercise. Although these illnesses do not manifest until maturity, these habits are frequently started or reinforced much earlier in adolescence.
On the other hand, a poor diet can cause weariness, impair judgment, and slow reaction time. A bad diet can worsen stress and sadness and even set them off. The prevalence of processed foods in society is one of the largest health problems.
Older adults should continue to be physically active since it might help them feel less stressed and increase their confidence. The chance of developing depression and other mental illnesses may rise if an active lifestyle is not maintained.
3. Insomnia and sleep disorders
Poor sleep hygiene and sleep deprivation are well-known to be harmful to mental health. Several environmental factors, not all of which are under our control, can impact sleep patterns. Loud neighbors, nearby noisy roads, extreme temperatures, and creaking architecture are some examples of factors that can lead to restless nights and, consequently, a decline in mental health.
How Our Environment Shapes Our Mental Health
The environment can have a significant impact on the mental health of older adults.
Here are some ways in which the environment can shape mental health:
- Social Support: Social support is essential for maintaining good mental health in older adults. The environment in which they live plays a significant role in providing social support. Living in a community that provides access to social activities, support groups, and a sense of belonging can be helpful in reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Physical Environment: The physical environment can also impact mental health. Living in a safe and comfortable environment can promote feelings of well-being and reduce stress. On the other hand, living in an environment that is noisy, crowded, or cluttered can cause stress and anxiety.
- Access to Resources: Access to resources such as healthcare, transportation, and community services can also impact the mental health of older adults. Living in an area that provides access to these resources can promote better mental health outcomes.
- Cultural Environment: Cultural environment can also have an impact on the mental health of older adults. For example, older adults from diverse cultural backgrounds may face unique challenges that can impact their mental health. It is important to consider cultural factors when designing interventions to promote mental health.
- Age-Friendly Environments: Age-friendly environments are designed to support the needs and preferences of older adults. These environments can include features such as accessible housing, transportation, and social spaces. Creating age-friendly environments can promote better mental health outcomes by reducing stress and improving quality of life.
Overall, the environment plays a crucial role in shaping the mental health of older adults. Creating environments that support social connections, physical comfort, access to resources, and cultural diversity can help promote mental well-being in older adults.
Although the circumstances that affect our mental health are not always within our control, we may seek support to make them more tolerable. Many mental health specialists are trained to help us develop strategies to care for our well-being, despite the difficulties we encounter, by aiding us in better understanding the unique history, identity, and experiences that have shaped our mental health.
While some of these variables, such as a hereditary tendency to a mental health problem, cannot be readily altered or addressed, it may be helpful to recognize underlying problems that contribute to the struggles we are currently experiencing. It is also beneficial to comprehend the underlying causes and recognize how we may take a more active role in looking after our mental health for those factors we can address or modify.