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The Takeaway: 1 in 5 Older Adults Have Mental Health or Substance Abuse Issues

There’s much made of the fact that an aging boomer population could seriously strain America’s health care resources. A new report finds the strain extends beyond just physical care, with 20 percent of older adults suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems and a serious shortage of doctors, nurses and other health workers trained in mental health care.

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.”

Identifying and treating mental health issues in older adults can be difficult; physical health problems mask or distract from mental health needs, medications complicate treatment, isolation may exasperate conditions or make it difficult for others to notice problems. There are currently an estimated 5.6 to 8 million Americans age 65 or older with a mental health condition or substance abuse disorder. Unsurprisingly, depression and dementia-related psychiatric issues led the pack. The most common time for the onset of depression is middle age.

Based on population alone–the number of Americans 65 or older is set to double by 2030–we can expect to see a lot more seniors in need of addiction treatment or mental health care in the coming few decades. Considering rates of illegal drug use are higher in today’s 50-somethings than in previous generations, the number could swell even higher, report co-author Peter Rabins said.

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