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Mental health in old age wrongly assessed?
Psychological problems occur at all ages, but so far it has been assumed that older people are much less susceptible here and therefore the incidence of mental illnesses decreases in older age. An international team of researchers coordinated by Professor Dr. Martin Härter, director of the institute and the polyclinic for medical psychology at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), has now found out that significantly more old people suffer from mental illnesses than previously thought. In view of inadequate diagnostic procedures, however, these would often not be recognized.
Just two months ago, US scientists published a study that found increasing satisfaction and improved mental health in old age. But the current investigation comes to a different conclusion. It contradicts the assumption that the incidence of mental illness decreases in old age. Looking back over a year, around a third of the 65 to 85-year-old study participants suffered from a mental illness and around a quarter of those surveyed showed a current mental illness, according to the UKE. The researchers published their results in the journal "British Journal of Psychiatry".
Conventional diagnostic tools unsuitable
The new, large-scale study in six European countries used innovative diagnostic methods to assess the mental health of older people. "The starting point was the assumption that the valid diagnostic procedures for adults are less suitable for diagnosing mental illnesses in older people," study leader Prof. Härter reports in the UKE press release. For example, older people would soon lose attention with conventional diagnostic tools and, in addition, "that the questions in previous diagnostic procedures were often quite long and complicated, which also caused problems for older people," reports the expert.
3,100 senior citizens examined
Together with Prof. Dr. Sylke Andreas, Dr. Jana Volkert and Prof. Holger Schulz from the UKE coordinated Prof. Härter's current studies, for which a new diagnostic tool was initially developed in the form of a computer-based interview with simplified sentences. Subsequently, “This procedure was used to examine 3,100 people aged 65 to 85 in Spain, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Israel and Switzerland,” the UKE said. The evaluations showed that a significant proportion of the subjects suffered from mental illnesses.
Anxiety disorders and depression are particularly common in old age
"The results show a significantly higher incidence of mental illness in older people than previously assumed," reports the UKE: For example, a third of those surveyed had a mental illness in the past year and a quarter of those surveyed had a current mental illness . "The most common cases were anxiety disorders (17 percent) and depression (14 percent), which the respondents were ill with last year," said the university hospital.
More psychotherapy services are needed for the elderly
The researchers conclude that the numbers are alarming for older people, particularly in light of the health services offered so far. Here better and more reliable ways are urgently needed to determine whether older people suffer from a mental illness. This also goes hand in hand with the urgent need to establish almost completely missing psychotherapeutic care services for people of older age. In any case, the previous assessment of mental health in old age must be reconsidered. (fp)