Although it’s generally easy to diagnose physical changes that may be taking place as people age or enter hospice care, mental health conditions are less easy for residents of Cedar Rapids and elsewhere to detect without professional help.
That’s because several symptoms are similar whether someone is experiencing dementia or even or actual mental health conditions, so it often takes evaluations by a health care provider and sometimes a mental health professional to fully assess.
The team at Above and Beyond Health Care and Hospice works with some patients who have dementia, some who have mental health conditions such as late-onset bipolar disorders, and some who may even have dementia and other mental conditions at once. So we are always happy to share any of our observations with their providers, or make sure they’re following any recommendations about medications or therapies.
We also make sure we’re up to date on current research into different forms of dementia as well as mental health conditions, especially conditions that may emerge later in life. We’re also happy to talk with family members and caregivers who may be trying to observe what’s could be happening to a loved one if some of their behaviors begin changing in order to share information with a provider or mental health specialist.
This month is also a useful occasion for families to learn more: for the first week it’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, when patients and their families are encouraged to interact more with mental health professionals in their area and learn about options.
Understanding the basics
Why dementias are thought of as mental conditions is because sometimes the behaviors are similar, including:
- Memory loss
- Strong, fast-acting emotions, including anger
- Feelings of anxiety
- Feelings of depression
That’s why professional advice can help, although there’s some controversy about specific terminology and prognosis.
For instance, in 2017, the American Psychology Association and the World Health Organization discussed the pros and cons of categorizing dementias not as mental health conditions but as psychological disorders.
While the WHO wanted to approach the problem of dementia as a medical condition apart from mental health that could possibly be treated by a neurologist, the APA felt that experts in psychology should be able to have a prominent role in diagnosing and treating dementia.
“Your Health In Mind,” an online health information resource created by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, generally categorizes dementias as mental illnesses or mental disorders but also defines them as being caused by other mental or physical health conditions.
For instance, a progressive dementia like Alzheimer’s disease stems from brain cells dying due to plaque coating their proteins. Vascular dementia can be caused by blood vessels being blocked in the brain. Other dementias may be caused by other physiological problems affecting the brain.
In some types of dementias, specific medications can reverse some symptoms. Other times, the mental and physical changes are permanent and progressive, but medications and sometimes lifestyle changes can extend the time between stages.
Other mental changes
We know that our bodies change over time, but what’s happening inside our heads can also change.
For instance, life events when someone is a senior may lead to other mental health conditions. For instance, losing friends or loved ones and feeling isolated could all contribute to depression.
Decreased mobility, declining health and increasing levels of pain can also be factors in depression or anxiety. People may gradually become concerned about going outside, which can evolve into other frustrations and mental disorders.
Or, years of poor lifestyle may lead to mental problems for seniors. For instance, someone with poor exercise habits who has been obese and has been drinking for decades is more likely to suffer physical and mental impairments.
One mental condition that has some similarities to dementia is late-onset bipolar disorder. It is not necessarily uncommon since most forms of bipolar disorder are detected prior to age 50. But in some cases, the diagnosis may be missed or the symptoms may begin to show up later and are more noticeable.
Some of the symptoms can include poor sleep patterns, memory problems, emotional and physical highs and lows, poor grooming, and difficulty separating reality from fantasy. These are similar to the symptoms of several forms of dementia, and could also increase the possibility of some forms of dementia.
For instance, research has shown that poor sleep is a behavior seen by people with Alzheimer’s disease. This could be because the process of a full night’s sleep helps “clean” certain proteins but also encodes data and memories acquired during the day.
People with dementias like Alzheimer’s disease are often found to have damaged proteins and also memory problems. Sleep that’s interrupted or shorter than recommended for a certain age may make someone more susceptible to other health conditions.
If someone you know is starting to experience problems such as forgetting things, irregular sleep habits or noticeable changes in emotion, you should take the effort to observe them closer through a certain period of time and then share your findings with their general health provider, who may provide a referral to a mental health professional.