Chapter 5
Older Adults and Mental Health

Chapter Overview

Overview of Mental Disorders in Older Adults

Depression in Older Adults

Alzheimer’s Disease

Other Mental Disorders in Older Adults

Service Delivery

Other Services and Supports



Chapter 5
Older Adults and Mental Health

The past century has witnessed a remarkable lengthening of the average life span in the United States, from 47 years in 1900 to more than 75 years in the mid-1990s (National Center for Health Statistics [NCHS], 1993). Equally noteworthy has been the increase in the number of persons ages 85 and older (Figure 5-1). These trends will continue well into the next century and be magnified as the numbers of older Americans increase with the aging of the post–World War II baby boom generation.

Millions of older Americans—indeed, the majority—cope constructively with the physical limitations, cognitive changes, and various losses, such as bereavement, that frequently are associated with late life. Research has contributed immensely to our understanding of developmental processes that continue to unfold as we age. Drawing on new scientific information and acting on clinical common sense, mental health and general health care providers are increasingly able to suggest mental health strategies and skills that older adults can hone to make this stage of the life span satisfying and rewarding.

The capacity for sound mental health among older adults notwithstanding, a substantial proportion of the population 55 and older—almost 20 percent of this age group—experience specific mental disorders that are not part of “normal” aging (see Table 5-1). Research that has helped differentiate mental disorders from “normal” aging has been one of the more important achievements of recent decades in the field of geriatric health. Unrecognized or untreated, however, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, alcohol and drug misuse and abuse, anxiety, late-life schizophrenia, and other conditions can be severely impairing, even fatal; in the United States, the rate of suicide, which is frequently a consequence of depression, is highest among older adults relative to all other age groups (Hoyert et al., 1999).

Figure 5-1. Increases in the percent of the U.S. Population over age 65 years and over 85 years (Malmgren, 1994).

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Table 5-1. Best estimate 1-year prevalence rates based on Epidemiologic Catchment Area, age 55+

Prevalence (%)
Any Anxiety Disorder 11.4
Simple Phobia 7.3
Social Phobia 1.0
Agoraphobia 4.1
Panic Disorder 0.5
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 1.5
Any Mood Disorder 4.4
Major Depressive Episode 3.8
Unipolar Major Depression 3.7
Dysthymia 1.6
Bipolar I 0.2
Bipolar II 0.1
Schizophrenia 0.6
Somatization 0.3
Antisocial Personality Disorder 0.0
Anorexia Nervosa 0.0
Severe Cognitive Impairment 6.6
Any Disorder 19.8

Source: D. Regier & W. Narrow, personal communication, 1999.

The clinical challenges such conditions present may be exacerbated, moreover, by the manner in which they both affect and are affected by general medical conditions or by changes in cognitive capacities. Another complicating factor is that many older people, disabled by or at risk for mental disorders, find it difficult to afford and obtain needed medical and related health care services. Late-life mental disorders also can pose difficulties for the burgeoning numbers of family members who assist in caretaking tasks for their loved ones (Light & Lebowitz, 1991).

Chapter Overview

Fortunately, the past 15 to 20 years have been marked by rapid growth in the number of clinical, research, and training centers dedicated to the mental illness- and mental health-related needs of older people. As evident in this chapter, much has been learned. The chapter reviews, first, normal developmental milestones of aging, highlighting the adaptive capacities that enable many older people to change, cope with loss, and pursue productive and fulfilling activities. The chapter then considers mental disorders in older people—their diagnosis and treatment, and the various risk factors that may complicate the course or outcome of treatment. Risk factors include co-occurring, or comorbid, general medical conditions, the high numbers of medications many older individuals take, and psychosocial stressors such as bereavement or isolation. These are cause for concern, but, as the chapter notes, they also point the way to possible new preventive interventions. The goal of such prevention strategies may be to limit disability or to postpone or even eliminate the need to institutionalize an ill person (Lebowitz & Pearson, in press). The chapter reviews gains that have been realized in making appropriate mental health services available to older people and the challenges associated with the delivery of services to this population. The advantages of a decisive shift away from mental hospitals and nursing homes to treatment in community-based settings today are in jeopardy of being undermined by fragmentation and insufficient availability of such services (Gatz & Smyer, 1992; Cohen & Cairl, 1996). The chapter examines obstacles and opportunities in the service delivery sphere, in part through the lens of public and private sector financing policies and managed care.

Finally, the chapter reviews the supports for older persons that extend beyond traditional, formal treatment settings. Through support networks, self-help groups, and other means, consumers, families, and communities are assuming an increasingly important role in treating and preventing mental health problems and disorders among older persons.

Normal Life-Cycle Tasks

With improved diet, physical fitness, public health, and health care, more adults are reaching age 65 in better physical and mental health than in the past. Trends show that the prevalence of chronic disability among older people is declining: from 1982 to 1994, the prevalence of chronic disability diminished significantly, from 24.9 to 21.3 percent of the older population (Manton et al., 1997). While some disability is the result of more general losses of physiological functions with aging (i.e., normal aging), extreme disability in older persons, including that which stems from mental disorders, is not an inevitable part of aging (Cohen, 1988; Rowe & Kahn, 1997).

Normal aging is a gradual process that ushers in some physical decline, such as decreased sensory abilities (e.g., vision and hearing) and decreased pulmonary and immune function (Miller, 1996; Carman, 1997). With aging come certain changes in mental functioning, but very few of these changes match commonly held negative stereotypes about aging (Cohen, 1988; Rowe & Kahn, 1997). In normal aging, important aspects of mental health include stable intellectual functioning, capacity for change, and productive engagement with life.

Cognitive Capacity With Aging

Cognition subsumes intelligence, language, learning, and memory. With advancing years, cognitive capacity with aging undergoes some loss, yet important functions are spared. Moreover, there is much variability between individuals, variability that is dependent upon lifestyle and psychosocial factors (Gottlieb, 1995). Most important, accumulating evidence from human and animal research finds that lifestyle modifies genetic risk in influencing the outcomes of aging (Finch & Tanzi, 1997). This line of research is beginning to dispel the pejorative stereotypes of older people as rigidly shaped by heredity and incapable of broadening their pursuits and acquiring new skills.

A large body of research, including both cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies, has investigated changes in cognitive function with aging. Studies have found that working memory declines with aging, as does long-term memory (Siegler et al., 1996), with decrements more apparent in recall than in recognition capacities. Slowing or some loss of other cognitive functions takes place, most notably in information processing, selective attention, and problem-solving ability, yet findings are variable (Siegler et al., 1996). These cognitive changes translate into a slower pace of learning and greater need for repetition of new information. Vocabulary increases slightly until the mid-70s, after which it declines (Carman, 1997). In older people whose IQ declines, somatic illness is implicated in some cases (Cohen, 1988). Fluid intelligence, a form of intelligence defined as the ability to solve novel problems, declines over time, yet research finds that fluid intelligence can be enhanced through training in cognitive skills and problem-solving strategies (Baltes et al., 1989).

Memory complaints are exceedingly common in older people, with 50 to 80 percent reporting subjective memory complaints (cited in Levy-Cushman & Abeles, in press). However, subjective memory complaints do not correspond with actual performance. In fact, some who complain about memory display performance superior to those who do not complain (Collins & Abeles, 1996). Memory complaints in older people, according to several studies, are thought to be more a product of depression than of decline in memory performance (cited in Levy-Cushman & Abeles, in press). (The importance of proper diagnosis and treatment of depression is emphasized in subsequent sections of this chapter.) Studies attempting to treat memory complaints associated with normal aging—using either pharmacological or psychosocial means—have been, with few exceptions, unsuccessful (Crook, 1993). In one of these exceptions, a recent study demonstrated a significant reduction in memory complaints with training workshops for healthy older people. The workshops stressed not only memory promotion strategies, but also ways of dealing with expectations and perceptions about memory loss (Levy-Cushman & Abeles, in press).

One large, ongoing longitudinal study found high cognitive performance to be dependent on four factors, ranked here in decreasing order of importance: education, strenuous activity in the home, peak pulmonary flow rate, and “self-efficacy,” which is a personality measure defined by the ability to organize and execute actions required to deal with situations likely to happen in the future (Albert et al., 1995). Education, as assessed by years of schooling, is the strongest predictor of high cognitive functioning. This finding suggests that education not only has salutary effects on brain function earlier in life, but also foreshadows sustained productive behavior in later life, such as reading and performing crossword puzzles (Rowe & Kahn, 1997).

The coexistence of mental and somatic disorders (i.e., comorbidity) is common (Kramer et al., 1992). Some disorders with primarily somatic symptoms can cause cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms as well, some of which rise to the level of mental disorders. At that point, the mental disorder may result from an effect of the underlying disorder on the central nervous system (e.g., dementia due to a medical condition such as hypothyroidism) or an effect of treatment (e.g., delirium due to a prescribed medication). Likewise, mental problems or disorders can lead to or exacerbate other physical conditions by decreasing the ability of older adults to care for themselves, by impairing their capacity to rally social support, or by impairing physiological functions. For example, stress increases the risk of coronary heart disease and can suppress cellular immunity (McEwen, 1998). Depression can lead to increased mortality from heart disease and possibly cancer (Frasure-Smith et al., 1993, 1995; Penninx et al., 1998).

A new model postulates that successful aging is contingent upon three elements: avoiding disease and disability, sustaining high cognitive and physical function, and engaging with life (Rowe & Kahn, 1997). The latter encompasses the maintenance of interpersonal relationships and productive activities, as defined by paid or unpaid activities that generate goods or services of economic value. The three major elements are considered to act in concert, for none is deemed sufficient by itself for successful aging. This new model broadens the reach of health promotion in aging to entail more than just disease prevention.

Change, Human Potential, and Creativity

Descriptive research reveals evidence of the capacity for constructive change in later life (Cohen, 1988). The capacity to change can occur even in the face of mental illness, adversity, and chronic mental health problems. Older persons display flexibility in behavior and attitudes and the ability to grow intellectually and emotionally. Time plays a key role. Externally imposed demands upon one’s time may diminish, and the amount of time left at this stage in life can be significant. In the United States in the late 20th century, late-life expectancy approaches another 20 years at the age of 65. In other words, average longevity from age 65 today approaches what had been the average longevity from birth some 2,000 years ago. This leaves plenty of time to embark upon new social, psychological, educational, and recreational pathways, as long as the individual retains good health and material resources.

In his classic developmental model, Erik Erikson characterized the final stage of human development as a tension between “ego integrity and despair” (Erikson, 1950). Erikson saw the period beginning at age 65 years as highly variable. Ideally, individuals at this stage witness the flowering of seeds planted earlier in the prior seven stages of development. When they achieve a sense of integrity in life, they garner pride from their children, students and protégés, and past accomplishments. With contentment comes a greater tolerance and acceptance of the decline that naturally accompanies the aging process. Failure to achieve a satisfying degree of ego integrity can be accompanied by despair.

Cohen (in press) has proposed that with increased longevity and health, particularly for people with adequate resources, aging is characterized by two human potential phases. These phases, which emphasize the positive aspects of the final stages of the life cycle, are termed Retirement/Liberation and Summing Up/Swan Song.

Retirement often is viewed as the most important life event prior to death. Retirement frequently is associated with negative myths and stereotypes (Sheldon et al., 1975; Bass, 1995). Cohen points out, however, that most people fare well in retirement. They have the opportunity to explore new interests, activities, and relationships due to retirement’s liberating qualities. In the Retirement/Liberation phase, new feelings of freedom, courage, and confidence are experienced. Those at risk for faring poorly are individuals who typically do not want to retire, who are compelled to retire because of poor health, or who experience a significant decline in their standard of living (Cohen, 1988). In short, the liberating experience of having more time and an increased sense of freedom can be the springboard for creativity in later life. Creative achievement by older people can change the course of an individual, family, community, or culture.

In the late-life Summing Up/Swan Song phase, there is a tendency to appraise one’s life work, ideas, and discoveries and to share them with family or society. The desire to sum up late in life is driven by varied feelings, such as the desire to complete one’s life work, the desire to give back after receiving much in life, or the fear of time evaporating. Important opportunities for creative sharing and expression ensue. There is a natural tendency with aging to reminisce and elaborate stories that has propelled the development of reminiscence therapy for health promotion and disease prevention. The swan song, the final part of this phase, connotes the last act or final creative work of a person before retirement or death.

There is much misunderstanding about thoughts of death in later life. Depression, serious loss, and terminal illness trigger the sense of mortality, regardless of age. Contrary to popular stereotypes, studies on aging reveal that most older people generally do not have a fear or dread of death in the absence of being depressed, encountering serious loss, or having been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness (Kastenbaum, 1985). Periodic thoughts of death—not in the form of dread or angst—do occur. But these are usually associated with the death of a friend or family member. When actual dread of death does occur, it should not be dismissed as accompanying aging, but rather as a signal of underlying distress (e.g., depression). This is particularly important in light of the high risk of suicide among depressed older adults, which is discussed later in this chapter.

Coping With Loss and Bereavement

Many older adults experience loss with aging—loss of social status and self-esteem, loss of physical capacities, and death of friends and loved ones. But in the face of loss, many older people have the capacity to develop new adaptive strategies, even creative expression (Cohen, 1988, 1990). Those experiencing loss may be able to move in a positive direction, either on their own, with the benefit of informal support from family and friends, or with formal support from mental health professionals.

The life and work of William Carlos Williams are illustrative. Williams was a great poet as well as a respected physician. In his 60s, he suffered a stroke that prevented him from practicing medicine. The stroke did not affect his intellectual abilities, but he became so severely depressed that he needed psychiatric hospitalization. Nonetheless, Williams, with the help of treatment for a year, surmounted the depression and for the next 10 years wrote luminous poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pictures From Bruegel, which was published when he was 79. In his later life, Williams wrote about “old age that adds as it takes away.” What Williams and his poetry epitomize is that age can be the catalyst for tapping into creative potential (Cohen, 1998a).

Loss of a spouse is common in late life. About 800,000 older Americans are widowed each year. Bereavement is a natural response to death of a loved one. Its features, almost universally recognized, include crying and sorrow, anxiety and agitation, insomnia, and loss of appetite (Institute of Medicine [IOM], 1984). This constellation of symptoms, while overlapping somewhat with major depression, does not by itself constitute a mental disorder. Only when symptoms persist for 2 months and longer after the loss does the DSM-IV permit a diagnosis of either adjustment disorder or major depressive disorder. Even though bereavement of less than 2 months’ duration is not considered a mental disorder, it still warrants clinical attention (DSM-IV). The justification for clinical attention is that bereavement, as a highly stressful event, increases the probability of, and may cause or exacerbate, mental and somatic disorders.

Bereavement is an important and well-established risk factor for depression. At least 10 to 20 percent of widows and widowers develop clinically significant depression during the first year of bereavement. Without treatment, such depressions tend to persist, become chronic, and lead to further disability and impairments in general health, including alterations in endocrine and immune function (Zisook & Shuchter, 1993; Zisook et al., 1994). Several preventive interventions, including participation in self-help groups, have been shown to prevent depression among widows and widowers, although one study suggested that self-help groups can exacerbate depressive symptoms in certain individuals (Levy et al., 1993). These are described later in this chapter.

Bereavement-associated depression often coexists with another type of emotional distress, which has been termed traumatic grief (Prigerson et al., in press). The symptoms of traumatic grief, although not formalized as a mental disorder in DSM-IV, appear to be a mixture of symptoms of both pathological grief and post-traumatic stress disorder (Frank et al., 1997a). Such symptoms are extremely disabling, associated with functional and health impairment and with persistent suicidal thoughts, and may well respond to pharmacotherapy (Zygmont et al., 1998). Increased illness and mortality from suicide are the most serious consequences of late-life depression.

The dynamics around loss in later life need greater clarification. One pivotal question is why some, in confronting loss with aging, succumb to depression and suicide—which, as noted earlier, has its highest frequency after age 65—while others respond with new adaptive strategies. Research on health promotion also needs to identify ways to prevent adverse reactions and to promote positive responses to loss in later life. Meanwhile, despite cultural attitudes that older persons can handle bereavement by themselves or with support from family and friends, it is imperative that those who are unable to cope be encouraged to access mental health services. Bereavement is not a mental disorder but, if unattended to, has serious mental health and other health consequences.

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