Senior Living Blog

Mental Health and Physical Health are Intertwined

May 25, 2021

Did you know that mental health conditions become more common with age? As we grow older, we’re more likely to be living with chronic health problems that can affect our quality of life. But the opposite is also true – mental health problems can worsen our physical health. That’s because depression and anxiety make it harder to get enough exercise, eat a healthy diet, and manage our medical routine and medications.

Yet many seniors hesitate to ask for help from a mental health professional. Recent research from Edith Cowan University in Australia sought to discover why. According to the 2019 study, conducted by psychologist Claire Adams, there are three main reasons that seniors are often reluctant to access mental health support services: they are skeptical that these services will help them; they don’t think their family and friends would be positive about it; and they think they are unable to access such services.

It can be tricky to identify mental health problems when a senior is living with chronic disease. “There are overlaps between mental health symptoms, physical health symptoms and the side-effects of medications,” says Adams. She offers as an example: “People living with respiratory disease who have difficulty breathing might assume that if their breathing is getting worse that’s because their chronic disease is getting worse; however, it might actually be a symptom of anxiety.”

Are you or an older loved one thinking about seeing a mental health professional? The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers suggestions for getting started:

  1. Begin with your primary care provider. Many doctors routinely ask senior patients about mental health symptoms these days; don’t brush off the question. Your doctor can refer you to a mental health specialist.
  2. Prepare for your first visit. Make a list of questions and concerns. Prepare a list of your medications (including prescription and nonprescription drugs, herbal remedies and supplements). Review your family history of mental disorders.
  3. Consider bringing a friend or relative. A trusted companion can provide support, help you remember everything the health care provider says, and, with your permission, offer input.
  4. Be honest. Older patients often keep quiet about mental illness. But providers can only help you get better if they have a clear idea of what you’re going through. They will want to know about stresses and changes in your life circumstances, and whether you are experiencing symptoms such as:
    • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
    • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
    • Irritability
    • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
    • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
    • Decreased energy or fatigue
    • Moving or talking more slowly
    • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
    • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
    • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
    • Appetite or weight changes (or both)
    • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
    • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
  1. Ask questions about your diagnosis and about treatment the provider is proposing. Be sure you understand everything, and express any concerns you might have. Remember that you can get a second opinion from a different provider.

Our physical and mental health are intricately intertwined. Seeking help for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions supports our physical health, as well.

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise reporting on materials from Edith Cowan University ( and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Categories: Senior Health