mental-health-day-blogToday is World Mental Health Day, and as a community we’re focusing on mental illnesses and the elderly. It’s something that might not affect us now in our 30s, or even something we want to think about, but definitely something that we should be conscious of — in both our personal struggles and taking care of our aging family members.

From the Dallas Morning News, Pamela Yip lays out the worldwide problem:

By 2050, people over the age of 60 will outnumber children under the age of 15 for the first time in history.

The index compiles data from the U.N., World Health Organization, World Bank and other global agencies. It analyzes income, health, education, employment and age-friendly environments in each country.

The report ranks the social and economic well-being of elders in 91 countries, with Sweden coming out on top and Afghanistan at the bottom.

The U.S. ranked eighth.

This is a huge wake-up call for all of us to find new ways to support and sustain the bulging population of seniors that will be among us.

Thanks to modern medicine, we’re living longer. And while mental illnesses are treatable, most of the worldwide health care systems are not prepared for this population of aging seniors — especially in the U.S. Up to 5.3 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2050 the number is expected to more than double. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and is the fifth leading cause among persons age 65 and older.

The Carter Center has worked for decades in tackling the challenges in our mental health care system. “Mental illness affects all of us, but there are still many myths and misconceptions about these disorders,” said former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who founded the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program in 1991.

Seniors are coping with a number of major life changes: retirement, financial burdens, loss of health or mobility, loss of social support and death of loved ones. Older adults also can experience hallucinations and paranoia, but their symptoms are masked by other ailments — most often, dementia. The isolation, anxiety and depression that are caused by these changes are often endured for long periods of time. Undiagnosed, the elderly endure a significant and long struggle — and delayed treatment.

As some of you know, I dealt with the loss of my grandmother this year. She struggled with the onset of Alzheimer’s for several years before seeking treatment (at the urging of family members). Alzheimer’s doubles for every five years of age after 60, and by the time someone reaches 85, the chance of developing this condition is 50-50. While my grandmother was eventually receiving treatment, she sustained irreversible damage. The approved treatments for Alzheimer’s are designed to enhance the communication between nerve cells. In some individuals, this will lessen the symptoms; however, these treatments will not prevent the progression of the disease.

From the CDC, which recognizes dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as a mental illness:

Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of cognitive disorders typically characterized by memory impairment, as well as marked difficulty in the domains of language, motor activity, object recognition, and disturbance of executive function – the ability to plan, organize, and abstract. Generally speaking, dementia is an illness of older adults, which suggests that as successive cohorts of our population live longer, the urgency to better address dementia increases. Medications addressing pathologies in neurotransmission underlying dementia have been used with modest – and generally short-term — success in forestalling the usual progression of these disorders.

Sadly, there is no cure for the genetic disease. But there are means to diagnose and treat elderly patients who are experiencing depressive symptoms that often mimic those of dementia. Likewise, there are a few studies that suggest certain behaviors might lessen the risk of developing the disease: increase in physical activity, maintaining social engagement and participating in intellectually-stimulating events.

As a community, we need to take this information to heart, when acknowledging our aging family members — seeking help or providing assistance for the elderly that may be dealing with mental illness.

World Mental Health Day is promoted by the World Health Organization to help raise awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and what the world’s governments and health organizations are doing in prevention, promotion and treatment services.

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