Mental wellness is just as important to your quality of life as your physical health. And, it’s important to note that developing either mental illness or dementia is not considered part of the normal aging process. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that over 20 percent of adults age 60 and older have a mental health condition or neurological disorder. Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Association says that every 66 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, which interferes with their ability to effectively communicate with each other. As cells become unable to properly communicate, changes to behavior, thoughts, and feelings occur.
These types of changes are commonly associated with mental illness due to the condition’s effects on the brain. However, while dementia does affect an individual’s mental health, it is not considered a mental illness. Instead, it’s thought of as a disorder of the brain that causes symptoms like memory loss, personality changes, and confusion. Still, misdiagnosis of mental illness in older adults can easily occur as the symptoms are often quite similar to dementia. As the treatment for mental illness is different from the treatment of dementia, it’s important to understand the distinction between the conditions.
Dementia affects all sufferers in different ways, but because it is a progressive disease, over time the symptoms will worsen. Core dementia symptoms include:
Disruptive memory loss. Although many older adults deal with memory issues, an individual with dementia experiences memory loss that interferes with their daily life and relationships.
Difficulty communicating. Sometimes seniors may have trouble retrieving a word “on the tip of their tongue.” Someone living with dementia, however, may call objects or people by the incorrect name, or have trouble completing sentences.
Trouble staying focused and completing tasks. Individuals with dementia may have trouble making and following through on plans, or have a difficult time concentrating on the task at hand.
Time and place confusion. Dementia causes individuals to get confused about the time of day, the day of the week, or even the season of the year. They may arrive at a destination with no memory of how they got there or how to get back home.
Displaying poor judgment. Individuals with dementia can easily fall victim to a senior scam or spend money frivolously when they’ve always watched every penny. Eventually, these poor decisions can put their health and safety at risk.
Changes in behavior or mood. Dementia causes people to become anxious, irritable or depressed, or experience rapid mood swings, going from being calm and happy to angry and tearful for no apparent reason.
Even if a senior has never before experienced mental health issues throughout their lives, some of the physical and emotional changes that come with aging can become triggers for certain mental health conditions. Often, mental illness develops due to a variety of events in one’s life, and environment and certain lifestyle choices can also play a role. The most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions in seniors include:
Anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders include frequent panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and general phobias. Many seniors suffering from anxiety experienced it at a younger age, but it’s still possible to develop it in later years.
Depression. Depression is commonly overlooked as a mental illness in seniors, but feelings of loneliness due to social isolation or decline in mobility can easily cause older adults to become depressed. However, if feelings of extreme sadness last longer than two weeks it should not be ignored. Depression is also one of the most common symptoms of dementia.
Bipolar disorders. Similar to dementia symptoms, bipolar disorder includes manic behavior, delusions, or changes in mood and personality. Seniors often experience bipolar symptoms differently than younger adults and are less likely to exhibit the classic signs of a manic episode. Instead, seniors are more likely to become easily agitated and irritable if they have the late-onset bipolar disorder. To differentiate between bipolar disorder and dementia, watch for signs like fatigue, weight loss or gain, extreme paranoia, impulsivity, and aggression.
Schizophrenia. Late-onset schizophrenia can also be difficult to diagnose due to the symptoms being similar to dementia. These symptoms include paranoia and hallucinations. Symptoms do tend to be milder than when the condition manifests in younger individuals.
Mental illnesses in seniors are serious issues, but unfortunately, they tend to be overlooked or misdiagnosed all too often. Proper treatment can ensure your loved ones manage their symptoms and enjoy living a fulfilling lifestyle.
Find the meaningful lifestyle your loved one deserves with memory care from Advent Christian Village. Located within a specialized wing in our skilled nursing community, Good Samaritan Center, our staff receives intensive training on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias to provide the highest level of care and support to both residents and their families. Contact us today to learn more or to schedule a personal tour.