Depression and Anxiety Often Undiagnosed in Older Adults

Related topics: Mental and Emotional Health, Mental Health

These common conditions can be treated, and treatment is often covered by Medicare.

Senior couple meeting with a healthcare professional

Many baby boomers and older adults experience issues with mental health at some point in their lives. In fact, one in four older adults experiences some type of mental illness, including depression and anxiety disorders. Yet mental illness remains critically underdiagnosed and undertreated in the baby boomer population—two-thirds of older adults with mental health problems do not receive the treatment they need.

Why are so many people remaining undiagnosed, and therefore untreated? Part of the problem may be negative stereotypes about aging—the idea that it is "normal" for someone to grow lonelier or more unhappy as they age.

Contrary to these negative stereotypes, feelings of depression and anxiety are not normal parts of aging. They are all signs of treatable medical conditions, no different than diabetes or hypertension. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health conditions in the 55 and older population.

If you are worried that you or someone you know may be suffering from mental illness, you should seek the help of a mental health professional immediately. Medicare helps cover a wide range of mental health services, including mental illness screenings; seeing doctors, psychiatrists and other mental health specialists; and paying for antidepressants and other medications. To learn more about mental health services available through Medicare, take the Medicare QuickCheck® assessment

Anxiety: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Have you ever suffered from excessive nervousness or fear? Do you sometimes experience chest pains, headaches, or gastrointestinal problems? You may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety. A recent study found that between 3 percent and 14 percent of older adults meet the criteria for a diagnosable anxiety disorder. And an even greater percentage have symptoms of anxiety that may not amount to diagnosis of a disorder, but still significantly impact their functioning—around 27 percent of adults under the care of an aging professional.

Common anxiety disorders include panic disorder (characterized by panic attacks, or sudden feelings of terror that strike repeatedly); obsessive compulsive disorder (suffering from repetitive unwanted thoughts or rituals); post-traumatic stress disorder (nightmares, depression, and other persistent symptoms after a traumatic event); phobias (an extreme fear of something that poses little danger); and generalized anxiety disorder (chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday activities).

Doctors typically treat anxiety through a combination of therapy and medication, but some people may benefit from just one form of treatment. To learn more about diagnosing and seeking treatment for anxiety, check out the "Anxiety in Older Adults" fact sheet.

Depression: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Are you concerned that you or someone you know may be suffering from depression? Common symptoms of depression include extended periods of sadness, loss of pleasure in everyday activities, poor sleep, quickly losing or gaining weight, and loss of energy or the ability to focus on everyday tasks. Many people who suffer from anxiety may also experience depression, and vice versa. A recent study found that more than one-quarter of older adults assessed by aging professionals met the criteria for a diagnosis of major depression.

Depression not only severely limits quality of life and someone's ability to take care of themselves, but also can lead to physical health problems, such as slower recovery from physical illness. Depressed people are also at a greater risk for suicidal thoughts and actions.

As with anxiety, doctors typically treat depression through a combination of therapy and medication. To learn more about diagnosing and seeking treatment for depression, check out the "Depression in Older Adults" fact sheet.  

Free Online Screening for Anxiety and Depression

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, it is important to seek medical help immediately. You can start by assessing your own mental health through an online screening for depression or anxiety. A screening is an anonymous, free and private way to learn about your mental health and see if you are showing signs of anxiety or other mental illness. A screening is not a diagnosis, but it can be a helpful tool for starting a conversation with your doctor or a loved one about your mental health.

Getting Help with Costs: Medicare + Mental Health Treatment

Worrying about health insurance costs should never be a barrier to treatment. Medicare helps cover a wide range of mental health services, including screening for mental illness, lab tests ordered by your doctor, and visits with a doctor, psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or clinical social worker. Part D helps cover the drugs you may need to treat a mental health condition.  To learn more about gaining access to the mental health services available to you through Medicare, take the Medicare QuickCheck®.  

To learn more, check out three new Mental Health Fact Sheets:

Depression in Older Adults
Anxiety in Older Adults
Preventing Suicide in Older Adults


Source: My Medicare Matters, brought to you by the National Council on Aging (NCOA), a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. Their mission is to improve the lives of millions of older adults, especially those who are struggling. Through innovative community programs and services, online help, and advocacy, NCOA is partnering with nonprofit organizations, government, and business to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2020.