Health and Wellbeing: Mental Health

       The Three D’s of Senior Mental Health Problems and Why They Go Undiagnosed.

Good mental health is of utmost importance to people of all ages, but health professionals are putting out the word that many mental health problems in those over 55 years of age are going undiagnosed as much as one third of the time.

Why would our aging population find it so difficult to be correctly diagnosed when we visit our doctors and what can be done when seniors need mental health care? The National Institute of Mental Health in the US says that 20% of the population over 55 years of age has experienced mental health problems. Yet one in three of these has gone undiagnosed.

The Three D’s

There are three main kinds of mental health challenges for the aging population. Each of them are distinctly defined, yet they also overlap in symptoms and cause. They are:


Those suffering depression in younger years are more likely to fall prey to it again in their senior years. In the US approximately 7% of the population suffer from the debilitating darkness that is depression. Many times the depressive state goes undiagnosed due to natural problems affecting the individual. We are much more likely to report physical ailments to doctors than to talk about our mental state. In addition, we may not have the vocabulary to express the way we feel. Financial pressures also may keep seniors from seeing the appropriate mental health professionals we need to see. If depression is a possibility, it is wise to begin with a general practitioner and secure a referral to a mental health specialist.


Dementia is a growing problem among our seniors. It is thought that 8% of those over 65 have dementia and 35% of those over 85 currently are diagnosed with it. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease. In dementia the brain loses cells causing a loss of memory, problems with clear communication and changes in behavior. Mood swings are also common in dementia sufferers.

A great deal of research is being done on dealing with dementia. It may soon be possible to diagnose it in the earliest stage to begin treatment early. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s at this point, we do know that general dementia can be caused by high blood pressure, vascular disease, stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease of a combination of some of the above.

Since the problem has become so widespread, doctors and mental health professionals are working to offer support groups for those affected and their family members. Daycare centers, counseling and help with the financial stresses of the disease are available in most communities.


This common problem in our elderly includes marked sadness, hopelessness and sometimes nervousness. Commonly these feelings are brought on by losses—financial, friends passing on, changes in lifestyle and loneliness.

Mental Illness in seniors can be just one or all three of the above. Long-term illnesses and physical disabilities often contribute to a decline in mental health as do a history of alcohol and substance abuse. Interactions of prescribed drugs can also contribute to mental health declines. It’s very important to have a family member oversee medications to make sure they are being taken properly and are not over-prescribed. Another common problem contributing to poor mental health is a poor diet and/or malnutrition. When seniors cook for themselves they often lack funds, energy or ability to cook healthy, nutritious meals. Shopping can be overtaxing and a senior’s budget may not allow for purchase of healthy food.

Ten ways to distinguish mental health problems from normal aging: (from Dr. Sarah Stevenson)

Sad or depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks

Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable

Unexplained fatigue, energy loss, or sleep changes

Confusion, disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making

Increase or decrease in appetite; changes in weight

Memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems

Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness; thoughts of suicide

Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained: aches, constipation, etc.

Changes in appearance or dress, or problems maintaining the home or yard

Trouble handling finances or working with numbers

The mental health of our senior citizens is important to the entire community. Take notice of elderly friends or family members. Take time to visit with them regularly and note any changes in behavior or mood. There are resources available to ease the circumstances when mental health challenges affect those we love.


The American Psychiatric Association:

The National Institute of Mental Health:

The Mental Health Foundation: