Getting older is a fact of life, but its accompanying changes — to our way of life, physical health, and relationships, for instance — are personal and can greatly affect our sense of well-being.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 percent of adults over the age of 55 report having some type of mental health concern. Yet the American Psychological Association (APA) says that less than three percent of older adults seek professional help for these issues.
And mental health challenges don’t just affect quality of life. Feelings like fear, stress, isolation, and anger can influence the immune system — increasing vulnerability to pain, infection, and chronic disease, and even having an impact on how we recover from surgery.
But by anticipating and preparing for life’s changes, you can manage their impact — so you and your older loved ones can maintain great mental health at any age.
Our bodies are programmed to detect changes in our environment — and these changes can activate a stress response. This is normal (and even beneficial), but when high stress levels are sustained, or when we experience many changes at once, stress can take a toll on mental health.
The types of age-related changes that cause stress are varied, and each person will respond to changes differently. But in general, common triggers for feelings like stress, worry, and fear among older adults include:
Building a career is a lifelong process for many people. Retirement can threaten your sense of identity and take away the satisfaction you get from doing your job well. Retirement also removes the social aspect that coworkers add to your life — and it may bring worries about financial security.
Whether it’s vision impairments, decreased mobility, or another physical condition related to growing older, changes in the physical body can lead to lowered self-esteem, a feeling of losing control, and anxiety.
Chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis can also contribute to depression. Side effects of medications prescribed to manage these conditions may have an unwanted effect on our sense of well-being too, especially if multiple drugs interact.
A study done by the University of California San Francisco found that more than 40 percent of seniors regularly experience loneliness, caused by situations like:
• Adult children moving away
• Reduced mobility
• Becoming divorced or widowed
• The death of loved ones and friends
Age-related bias can significantly impact our mental health. This type of discrimination can take many different forms, including:
• Limited employment or career advancement opportunities for older adults
• Reduced access to resources, facilities, and services
• Neglect or stereotyping from family members, younger peers, or medical professionals
In fact, the APA points to discrimination as a reason that many older adults don’t seek mental healthcare. Seniors face institutional challenges such as:
• Inadequate collaboration between medical providers
• Resources and therapies that are often geared toward younger adults
• A failure to recognize signs of declining mental health, attributing symptoms to physical conditions alone
We can’t avoid change. But by planning for it, we can overcome challenges and create an environment that supports better mental health.
Anticipating issues and making a plan adds an element of control as you navigate change. It reduces the risk of unwelcome surprises that contribute to stress, while ensuring fewer gaps in a long-term wellness plan.
Every person’s plan will look different, but some considerations could include:
• Thoroughly mapping out logistics for things like pensions, social security, insurance, and budgets
• Securing reliable access to transportation, nutritional food, and local facilities
• Identifying ways to stay active and socially engaged
Poor mental health puts us at a greater risk of physical health problems — and this works in the other direction. Studies routinely show that maintaining healthy activity levels, sleeping habits, and nutrition helps improve and sustain mental well-being.
It can be difficult to maintain social connections as we age, but personal relationships are vital to our mental health. It’s also important to have a support system in place to help you manage difficult situations like bereavement or emerging health conditions.
By engaging in activities you enjoy, you can help to build a greater social network. Stick with your interests — this could include:
• Volunteering — which exposes you to new, like-minded people while lending a feeling of purpose
• Starting or continuing a hobby in a group setting
• Gaining a sense of community among pet lovers by regularly visiting a local dog park — or volunteering at a shelter if you cannot support a pet
Mental health struggles can impact every aspect of your life, no matter your age. Looking out for the common signs of conditions like depression helps ensure timely treatment for you or your loved ones.
Ongoing sadness and low moods are typical, well-known signals. But mental health issues can also lead to:
• Feelings of worthlessness
• Fatigue, irritability, and restlessness
• Loss of energy, motivation, and concentration
• Appetite changes
• Sleep problems
• More physical aches and pains than usual
If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of declining mental health, don’t wait to reach out for help. Your family doctor can refer you to a mental health professional, or you can contact Carbon Health. Our team of experts offers virtual mental health support (currently available in California) — so you can get the care you need to navigate this time of change.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.