Causes and Risk Factors for Senior Mental Illness

One of the ongoing problems with diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in seniors is the fact that older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than psychiatric complaints (CDC). However, even the normal physical and emotional stresses that go along with aging can be risk factors for mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation lists a number of potential triggers for mental illness in the elderly:

  • Physical disability
  • Long-term illness (e.g., heart disease or cancer)
  • Dementia-causing illness (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Physical illnesses that can affect thought, memory, and emotion (e.g. thyroid or adrenal disease)
  • Change of environment, like moving into assisted living
  • Illness or loss of a loved one
  • Medication interactions
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Poor diet or malnutrition

The Lancet Commission estimates that approximately 35 percent of dementia cases are attributable to a combination of nine potentially modifiable risk factors:

  • Low educational attainment
  • Midlife hypertension
  • Midlife obesity
  • Hearing loss
  • Late-life depression
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Social isolation

Risk factors for Depression:

  • Prior depressive episode
  • Family history
  • Female gender
  • Childbirth (ie, postpartum depression)
  • Childhood trauma
  • Stressful life events
  • Poor social support
  • Serious medical illness
  • Dementia
  • Substance abuse

Risk factors for Anxiety:

  • Female gender
  • Younger age (25 to 34 years)
  • Lower education level
  • Living alone
  • Unemployment
  • Parental psychiatric history
  • Childhood trauma
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