The Importance of Mental Health for Aging Well
Medically reviewed by Leann Poston, M.D. on 9/25/20
Far too often, the discussion surrounding health and aging focuses only on physical well-being and neglects the mind. Yet, mental health for aging well is just as important a component as physical health – they are two parts of the same whole. Here, we’re not talking about memory, recall, and mental function – those fall under the heading of brain health or keeping your mind active and sharp. Rather, we’re talking about emotional and mental health, mental illness, relationships with friends and family, how stress is dealt with, and so on. Collectively, these concepts make up modern mental health, and effectively managing mental health is a critical and often neglected component of a healthy aging plan.
With all of that said, everyone’s experiences with mental health, mental illness, and related topics will naturally vary. What might be seen as fairly unhealthy and abnormal to some may be perfectly normal to others. This article isn’t about judging the sanity or mental fitness of anyone but rather seeks to explain the links between mental health and physical health. We’ll look at some of the common mental health problems that afflict people of all ages today, and then dive into some specifics on age-related mental health issues – that is, issues that specifically develop in older adults, often as a response to or triggered by the prospect of getting older, declining physical health, reduced mobility, and similar problems. Then, we’ll focus on some of the treatment options that are available, and how they can help improve mental health for aging well. Finally, we’ll offer some tips and advice that all older adults can put into practice, to help ensure maximum mental health with age. Let’s get started!
Mental Health is Linked to Physical Health
A modern approach to health, in general, focuses on not just the physical, but also mental and social well-being of individuals. Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, “health is a state of complete physical, mental, social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” That last part is equally important, as many people think of physical health as only their resiliency to disease, or treatment of illnesses or health conditions. Instead, we must start to think about health as holistically as possible, focusing on the whole person and their quality of life.
In that respect, mental health is just one part of overall health. It is well-established that poor mental health, including mental illness, can lead to negative physical health consequences. Depression and anxiety often lead to an increased level of fatigue, increased risk of suicide, lower levels of physical activity, substance abuse, and many other physical symptoms. Likewise, people suffering from physical health issues and illnesses often see their mental health deteriorate. The two are inextricably linked, and neglecting one can have a negative effect on the other, and vice versa. Therefore, it makes good sense in your quest to age well to ensure that you not only address physical health risks and problems, preventatively and proactively, alongside mental health problems, with equal energy and focus.
Common Mental Health Problems at All Ages
Today, many common health problems afflict children and adults of all ages. These are not necessarily any more likely at an older age than among younger adults and are therefore not considered age-related mental health problems. Nevertheless, older adults still need to contend with and address these problems in order to ensure optimal mental health for aging well. Common mental health problems include:
- Anxiety or panic disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorder
There are certainly other mental health problems, but they are far less common, such as multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, and similar. They also most definitely need treatment, as do all of the issues discussed in this article, but affect a much smaller percentage of the population.
Age-Related Mental Health Issues
In addition to all of these common health problems, there are certain age-related mental health issues that may arise as people age. None of them are considered “normal” or something you should have to live with, and almost all of them are treatable to one extent or another. Treatment is essential for managing mental health for aging well.
Most of these conditions overlap with the kinds of problems described above, but with new triggers brought about due to aging. Examples include depression as the result of the loss of family or friends, anxiety or fear over the potential of losing loved ones or the prospect of death, frustration and stress over finances, housing, loss of mobility or personal freedoms, and so on.
These are not, in and of themselves, mental health issues, but rather triggers which, left untreated or unprocessed, can exacerbate existing mental health issues or create new mental health problems entirely. Mental health does not need to escalate to the level of a disorder, either, in order to cause distress or problems in life, including spilling over into physical health effects.
Lastly, many prescription medications can have side effects, which can worsen anxiety disorders, depression, and other mental health conditions. Since aging usually means an ever-increasing number of prescription and non-prescription medications as part of your routine, the risk of mental health side effects also tends to increase as people age. Therefore, part of mental health for aging well means managing side effects and symptoms of necessary medications, and discussing any ill effects with your doctor, adjusting dosages, or switching medications.
The good news is the state of mental health treatment has never been better. There is a range of treatment options available for all major mental illnesses and conditions, with varying efficacy based on the individual. Comprehensive treatments, often involving multiple approaches, such as medication and therapy, often deliver the best results for most patients. Geriatric specialists, such as geriatric psychologists and psychiatrists, can best help with age-related mental health issues, while general clinicians can help people of any age with the full range of non-age-specific mental health problems. The most common treatments today include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Group therapy
- Exposure therapy
- Medications such as SSRIs/SNRIs
- Acute medications to handle anxiety such as benzodiazepines
- Long-term medications to help with depression and similar conditions
- Virtual reality therapy
- Long-term counseling
- Mindfulness and meditation
Tips to Maintain and Improve Mental Health for Aging Well
As with physical health, preventative efforts to avoid mental illness in the first place, and taking steps to optimize mental health for aging well are the best approach to remaining healthy. However, please do note that not all aspects of mental illness or mental health are within your control – if a problem does ever develop, seek professional help, and don’t beat yourself for feeling like you “failed” to prevent a mental illness from manifesting. That’s guilt that doesn’t accomplish anything but make you feel worse – and we’re all about helping you to feel better and age well! To that end, we’ve compiled some of the top tips to help you monitor, maintain, and maximize your mental health.
Top Mental Health Tips
- Maintain and grow your relationships as you age, with friends, family, neighbors, and so on
- Develop a social safety net of people who care about you and your well being, whom you can rely on for emotional support
- Get regular medical checkups with your doctor, and discuss any mental health issues, for possible referral to a psychiatrist and/or psychologist when warranted
- Take time to reduce stress and center yourself in your daily life, whether through mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or a few minutes of quiet time.
- Get regular exercise, to the extent practical for your activity and mobility level, as exercise produces feel-good endorphins, and helps keep you in good physical shape
- Treat any illnesses, diseases, or other health conditions promptly and completely as per a doctor or healthcare provider’s direction – don’t let things linger
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet to ensure you get sufficient nutrients, maintain or achieve a healthy weight, and optimize your physical health
- Cut out tobacco, alcohol, and other vices, or at least reduce their use, as they have profound negative health effects, which as we’ve discussed can spill over beyond the physical to the mental health realm as well
- Keep your brain active, challenged, and alert by engaging in hobbies like crafts, reading, puzzles and games, and so on
- Work to get 8 hours of good quality sleep every night, on a consistent routine, as this allows both mind and body to reset, rest, and be at their peak every day
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most common mental illness in older adults?
The most common mental illnesses or mental health problems that older adults experience are depression and anxiety-related disorders. The latter include anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and similar phenomena. These are among the most common mental health issues across all ages, and not simply unique to older adults. However, a greater degree of older adults, especially senior citizens, report these symptoms with causes that link to getting older, loss of freedom, loss of mobility, loss of a spouse or loved one, and related causes. That’s on top of the natural, organic range of causes resulting in these symptoms and illnesses across all age groups, genders, socioeconomic demographics, and physical health levels.
Does mental health generally get better or worse with age?
Surprisingly, mental health overall seems to improve with age, rather than worsen. While it is true that new and unique stressors associated with aging may cause some people to experience mental health symptoms they never experienced in younger life, on average, older adults are more mentally stable and healthy than younger ones. This likely has something to do with the wisdom and resilience gained from a lifetime of experience. A study of over 1,000 adults from age 21 to 99 conducted in August 2016 found that older adults felt better about themselves and their life circumstances and were generally self-reported as happier and more content with their lives than people in their 20s and 30s. So, on balance, though new problems may emerge, especially with physical health, it does seem that mental health and happiness actually get better with age – great news for America’s aging population!
Are there special professionals who work on age-related mental health?
Professionals who provide therapy and treatment specifically for age-related mental health problems are generally known as geriatric psychologist and geriatric psychiatrists. That’s not to say that regular clinical psychologists and psychiatrists can’t treat age-related mental health problems, or vice versa. However, if you or an older adult you care about are suffering from mental health problems or mental illness that is directly tied to the process of aging and getting older, then it can be beneficial to seek out a geriatric specialist, rather than a more generalized practicing mental health professional. They’ll have the expertise and experience to address these issues specifically and effectively. As always, it’s best to check with your insurance provider to make sure your chosen mental health services and provider are covered and within your network.
There’s no question that older adults have a range of pressures and stressors to contend with, which can trigger mental health problems, or exacerbate existing problems. Age-related fears, decreased abilities, and changes in living situations can all present older adults with unique challenges to their mental health. Often times, existing foibles, quirks, or full-blown mental illnesses can flare up with aging, too. At the same time, putting in effort to treat mental health problems, and maintain ideal mental health and balance, can have a profoundly positive effect on overall physical health as you age. Following some basic advice to maintain or improve mental health for aging well is one of the most basic steps you can take to remain happy and healthy, in all respects, as you get older.
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While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.