Dementia and depression, the most common mental disorders in the elderly

Dementia and depression, the most common mental disorders in the elderlyMental illness is far more common than you may realize – but it’s still not a subject most people want to talk about.

In fact, the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in four American adults experience mental illness over the course of a year. Roughly 60 percent of the 61.5 million Americans affected never seek treatment and continue to live with some form of mental illness.


Without proper treatment these individuals are at a higher risk of having a chronic medical condition as well; their lifespan is roughly 25 years less than those who do not have a mental illness. As you can see, mental illness is quite serious and there is a pressing need to discuss it and breakdown the surrounding stigma.

One faction of the population that faces a higher likelihood of developing a mental illness is seniors. Not only is this group more vulnerable to developing a mental illness, but seniors are also more reluctant to seek treatment and are often misdiagnosed.

To make matters worse, there is not a sufficient supply of trained professionals to deal with this aging population. In fact, the American Psychological Association suggests there are only a reported 4.2 percent of psychologists whose primary focus is the elderly. Resources are limited; there needs to be a stronger push in understanding mental disorders in the elderly.

There are some common mental disorders that seniors have to face. They include dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and depression. Let’s examine each one of these mental disorders in seniors for better understanding and awareness of the illnesses they may face.


Dementia is a mental illness that refers to the cognitive decline of an individual. This means they can lose their memory, have a reduced ability to problem-solve and lack concentration and focus. This occurs because the cells in the brain that assist in these crucial factors begin to die off or damage occurs.

Causes of dementia

As we mentioned, causes of dementia can stem from the death of brain cells or damage to the brain. Alternative causes of dementia include:

  • Causes of dementiaLack of blood or oxygen to the brain
  • Head injury
  • Pressure on the brain (can be caused by a tumor)
  • Fluid built up between the brain and the brain lining – also referred to as hydrocephalus
  • Another neurological disease like Parkinson’s – we will examine this later on
  • Infection
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time

Symptoms of dementia

Symptoms of dementia include:

  • Confusion
  • Lack of concentration and focus
  • Memory loss
  • Impaired reasoning
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Loss of communication skills
  • Disorientation
  • Motor and balance problems
  • Neglects of personal care and well-being
  • Anxiety, hallucinations and agitation

Many of these symptoms can be confused with other illnesses that affect seniors, which is why diagnosing mental disorders in seniors is that much more difficult.

Types of dementia

Dementia is a broad term, which encompasses the loss of memory, so there are many different forms of it, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease – We will explore this is more detail later on.
  • Vascular dementia – Problems in the blood vessels result in this form of dementia.
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies – Abnormal clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein, which develop in the cortex of the brain.
  • Mixed Dementia – More than one type of dementia is present.
  • Parkinson’s disease – We will explore this is more detail later on.
  • Frontotemporal dementia – No known abnormalities are seen. It occurs at a younger age (60) and individuals have a shortened lifespan.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – A rare, fatal brain disorder commonly seen in “mad cow disease.”
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus – Build-up of fluid between the brain and the brain’s lining.
  • Huntington’s disease – A gene defect which affects the brain’s proteins.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome – A chronic memory disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B-1. Common cause is excessive alcohol consumption over a period of time.


Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia, which means areas of the brain that hold onto memory, behavior and thinking are affected. As the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the diagnosis of 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. Common belief is that Alzheimer’s disease is an aging disease and it simply comes with getting old. This is a false assumption, and nearly five percent of cases are people younger than 65. Alzheimer’s disease does worsen over time, and life expectancy is anywhere between four to 20 years.

Causes of Alzheimer’s disease

Causes of Alzheimer’s diseaseThere are no tell-tale causes for Alzheimer’s disease, but scientists continue to work towards uncovering potential causes. Here are some possible causes of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors over the years.
  • Plaques – Clumps of protein, beta-amyloid, which cause damage to the brain cells.
  • Tangles – Tau proteins become tangles causing the transport system to fail, meaning nutrients and other materials cannot move around the brain which is essential.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

First and foremost, Alzheimer’s disease robs individuals of their memory. It may start off mild and appear as normal forgetfulness associated with aging, but this can dramatically worsen over time. Other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Loss of special relationships – not knowing what it is or what is currently going on
  • Reduction in the ability to speak or write
  • Impairments in judgment and rationalization
  • Planning and performing tasks deteriorates
  • Changes in personality or behavior – depression, anxiety, mood swings, agitated, delusions

Alzheimer’s disease prevention

Because there is no exact cause for Alzheimer’s disease, prevention is still speculative. Some research has shown that diet plays a role in maintaining healthy memory. Eating whole foods, fish and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, for example. Also keeping your mind busy – whether completing puzzles or learning new skills – may help aid in your cognitive abilities and ward of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Related Reading: The Top Signs You’ll get Alzheimer’s – More Than Just Memory Loss

Parkinson’s disease

Another form of dementia, Parkinson’s disease mainly affects the part of the brain that affects movement. Eventually, though, Parkinson’s disease will also begin to affect memory and judgment as well. About two percent of the elderly population – those over 65 – have Parkinson’s disease, making it fairly common.

Causes of Parkinson’s disease

Causes of Parkinson’s diseaseChanges in the brain are the main cause of Parkinson’s disease. Abnormal deposits of the protein alpha-synuclein – also referred to as Lewy bodies – are found along with plaques and tangles – similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

Other potential risk factors include:

  • Hallucinations in an individual without dementia
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • “Freezing” in mid-step, inability to create a movement, balance problems

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • Changes in memory and concentration
  • Muffled speech
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbance

Parkinson’s disease prevention

Similar to Alzheimer’s disease there are currently no proven means of preventing Parkinson’s disease because the exact cause is still unknown. Currently, suggestions for healthy living – exercising and eating well – may delay the onset of Parkinson’s disease.


Depression can affect anyone at any age, and it can range from being quite mild to quite severe. The Canadian Psychological Association estimates that the prevalence of depression in seniors is somewhat low, only at three to five percent. But the number of seniors experiencing symptoms of depression is higher, coming in at 15 percent.

It is difficult, though, to achieve an accurate estimation because seniors often attribute their symptoms to aging and do not feel they have a mental illness. Additionally, symptoms of depression can often be confused with other illnesses, which will get treated first.

Related Reading: The Breakthrough Saliva Test for Parkinson’s Disease

Causes of depression

Some factors that can cause depression in the elderly are:

  • Causes of depressionPrior history of depression in earlier life
  • Chronic health problems
  • Loss of spouse
  • Side effect of another illness, such as stroke
  • Loss of independence and control – moving into a nursing home, for example
  • Loneliness
  • Lack of social support

Symptoms of depression

As mentioned, the symptoms of depression can overlap those of other illnesses, so pinpointing the difference can affect the modes of treatment. Symptoms of depression are:

  • Lack of energy
  • Fatigue
  • Sleepiness or not sleeping
  • Persistent sadness – doesn’t go away
  • Disinterest in previously loved activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical symptoms – headache, aches and pains
  • Loss of sex drive and other sexual problems
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
  • Not wanting to be around others – isolation
  • Low self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Loss of appetite

Types of depression

Like dementia, there are numerous forms of depression. The type of depression you have can determine treatment and severity:

  • Mild depression – limited negative effects on daily life
  • Major depression – depression which interferes with daily life
  • Bi-polar disorder – moods swings from extreme highs to extreme lows
  • Post-natal depression – new mothers may experience this form of depression after giving birth
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – usually occurs in the winter months when sunlight is minimal

Preventing depression

As a means of preventing depression in seniors, ensuring they are not isolated, have strong social ties and have a sense of independence and autonomy is a good start. Other means of preventing depression are:

  • Managing pre-existing medical conditions
  • Creating a sense of purpose
  • Combating fears – either of money, dying, etc.
  • Healing from loss

Related reading: Depression in the elderly causes slower response to treatment

Making mental health a priority in seniors

Because mental disorders in the elderly are so often overlooked and misdiagnosed, treatment can be difficult. Raising awareness of common mental illnesses that affect seniors can encourage them to seek help and overcome their mental distress.

Mental illness does not have to be an inevitable cause of aging. As more research comes to light about these common mental disorders, we can create better systems for access and treatment.

Doctors, too, must become better trained to deal with the aging population and detect mental health issues. As communication opens in the area of mental health, we can begin to have better understanding of what seniors really go through – and deter mental health related deaths.

Related Reading:

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