Growing Burdens of the Aging; Mental Health Needs Seen as a Major Issue

By Neergaard, Lauran | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

Growing Burdens of the Aging; Mental Health Needs Seen as a Major Issue


Neergaard, Lauran, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Getting older doesn't just mean a risk for physical ailments like heart disease and bum knees: A new report finds as many as 1 in 5 seniors has a mental health or substance abuse problem.

And as the population rapidly ages over the next two decades, millions of baby boomers may have a hard time finding care and services for mental health problems such as depression - because the nation is woefully lacking in doctors, nurses and other health workers trained for their special needs, the Institute of Medicine said this week.

Instead, the country is focused mostly on preparing for the physical health needs of what's been called the silver tsunami.

"The burden of mental illness and substance abuse disorders in older adults in the United States borders on a crisis," wrote Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke University, who chaired the Institute of Medicine panel that investigated the issue. "Yet this crisis is largely hidden from the public and many of those who develop policy and programs to care for older people."

Already, at least 5.6 million to 8 million Americans age 65 and older have a mental health condition or substance abuse disorder, the report found - calling that a conservative estimate that doesn't include a number of disorders. Depressive disorders and psychiatric symptoms related to dementia are the most common.

While the panel couldn't make precise projections, those numbers are sure to grow as the number of seniors nearly doubles by 2030, said report co-author Dr. Peter Rabins, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University. How much substance abuse treatment for seniors will be needed is a particular question, as rates of illegal drug use are higher in boomers currently in their 50s than in previous generations.

Mental health experts welcomed the report.

"This is a wake-up call for many reasons," said Dr. Ken Duckworth of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The coming need for geriatric mental health care "is quite profound for us as a nation, and something we need to attend to urgently," he said.

Merely getting older doesn't make mental health problems more likely to occur, Rabins said, noting that middle age is the most common time for onset of depression.

But when they do occur in older adults, the report found that they're too often overlooked and tend to be more complex. …

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