In May 2012, the American Institute of Medicine reported that millions of older Americans – the Baby Boomers – may be facing a mental health crisis as they age. The study cites statistics of 1 in 5 older adults who have a mental health issue, including substance abuse. Why the crisis? There are simply not enough mental health care workers to handle what California’s Aging and Long-Term Care assembly member, Mariko Yamada, terms the “silver tsunami” starting to hit the United States.
According to Yamada, there are 10,000 Americans turning 65 every year in the United States alone and we, as a country, need to acknowledge the complex mental healthcare needs of this special population. Mental health disorders in this population, like common depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and dementia, and less common schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, threaten to overwhelm mental healthcare professionals. Unless more resources are developed to deal with the growing population, healthcare costs will continue to rise.
Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke University was quoted in a recent CBS news report on the issue:
“The burden of mental illness and substance abuse disorders in older adults in the United States borders on a crisis…yet this crisis is largely hidden from the public and many of those who develop policy and programs to care for older people.”
Substance abuse rates are much higher in people over age 50 than it was in previous generations, says psychiatrist Peter Rabin, MD of Johns Hopkins University. This includes both alcohol and illegal substance use. According to Dr. Rabins, “middle age is the most common time for depression to start, although getting older doesn’t necessarily make mental health problems more likely to occur.”
According to the American Institute’s report, many mental health issues, like substance abuse and mood disorders, are often hidden in this age group. They may be taking pain killers for chronic pain syndromes or sleeping aids for insomnia, which can result in over-use of medications and/or addiction. Simply getting older can change how the body metabolizes drugs and alcohol – what this population used to be able to drink or handle as a medication, at an earlier age, may result in overdoses now.
Chronic steroid use, to fight inflammatory issues like arthritis, can lead to mood disorders that either requires cutting back on steroids or adding an anti-depressant to the regimen. Too, major depression may be overlooked as chronic grief experiences start to occur more frequently in this population. Spouses, friends, relatives start to pass away more often and people can develop a chronic depression. As a result, other chronic illnesses, like diabetes or high blood pressure, are less likely to be under control in these individuals. The study concluded that more healthcare professionals trained/skilled in treating the physical, as well as mental health, issues associated with this age group, and the medications they’re using is crucial.