Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 May 2010
Unfortunately, the stigma that pervades mental health care in general is exacerbated when discussing mental health issues in the elderly. Statements such as, “If I were that old I would feel tired too” or “If all my friends were dying I would be depressed too” are all too often heard. This demonstration of ageism, which refers to the unfair judging of the elderly adult simply because of their advanced age, is important in medicine because a negative attitude may influence physicians' aggressiveness toward the diagnosis and treatment of the elderly patient. Many older adults are already conditioned to accept functional and cognitive decline as an inevitable part of the aging process, and even more troubling is that many health care professionals may perpetuate this concept and mistake the symptoms that can accompany serious illness as part of that inevitable decline.
Nearly 20% of individuals 55 years and older experience a mental disorder that is not a part of normal aging. The most common disorders, in order of prevalence, are anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders. It is estimated, however, that only half of older adults who acknowledge mental health problems receive treatment from any health care provider, and only approximately 3% of those receive specialty mental health services. According to the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry, over half of older persons who receive mental health care receive it from their primary care physicians.