As Mental Health of Older Adults Worsens, Behavioral Health Providers Feel Strain

Medical advances are helping Americans live longer than ever before. While some might equate that with better health, new research suggests that’s not always the case, especially when it comes to behavioral health.

In fact, the mental health of older Americans is declining, according to a new study published in JAMA’s Network Open, putting more strain than ever on short-staffed behavioral health providers.  

“[The trend is] likely to increase the demand for mental health providers and primary care physician services beyond the already strained current capacities, in particular among health care providers who serve lower income populations,” David Rehkopf, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University and the lead researcher of the study, told Behavioral Health Business.

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For the study, researchers examined the health status of nearly 2.5 million older adults. The information they used came from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and telephone surveys by state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Researchers found that, in 2017, people between ages 60 and 69 experienced a higher number of days filled with stress, depression and emotional problems than individuals of the same age did in 2003.

Specifically, the number of mentally unhealthy days per year for the age group increased 3.5% during that period, researchers found.

This comes despite the fact that, at the same time, individuals 65 and older reported stable or improving physical and general health; those 60 to 64 reported stable general health and only a slight physical decline from 2003 to 2017.

“What is unusual is that often physical and mental health trends are in parallel, but over the last 15 years we instead see improving general and physical health for people 60 and over, but declining mental health, which is surprising,” Rehkopf said.

Surprising and abnormal, according to Joe Parks, the medical director of the National Council for Behavioral Health.

“Health providers need to remain aware that increasing anxiety and depression isn’t a natural and normal part of aging, and not discount these complaints and their patients as part of just getting older,” Parks told BHB.

Educational and income levels appeared to have an effect on the mental wellness of all individuals at least 60 years old, according to the study.

Those who did not have a high school diploma reported more days where they did not feel well mentally (from 3.6 days to 4.4 days), as did those whose household income level was below $35,000 (2.9 to 4.1).

“People with low incomes are more likely to have financial difficulties, and money problems make everyone sad and anxious,” Parks said. “I believe that the finding of better mental health in people with higher levels of education [is] a more general finding independent of age.”

Researchers posit labor market conditions to possibly be a culprit of aging individual’s mental health decline, particularly for those with lower levels of educational and income. Meanwhile, Parks acknowledged the role of loneliness.

“Much of the anxiety and depression is a result of having less connection with others and becoming more isolated, especially after careers and when children and family do not live nearby,” Parks said.

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