Behavioral health and aging

Bringing awareness to an issue we all face
Older gentleman opening his mail-order pharmacy package

How you feel emotionally can have a significant effect on your overall physical health (PDF, 158KB). And how you feel emotionally is largely informed by the behaviors, thoughts, and environments particular to your circumstances, especially for parents and grandparents with a lifetime of experience building familiar habits and preferences.

In years past, personal choices regarding how we treat our minds, bodies, and spirits were considered important, though separate, from what happens inside the hospital. Today, research has come a long way in studying the connection between our internal world and our physical health. And that focus on complete individual wellness is what we call behavioral health.

How do we define behavioral health?

Behavioral health is a broad term that includes more than mental health alone. In the simplest terms, behavioral health is the study, analysis, and promotion of mental health and well-being, including their associated personal habits. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (PDF, 321KB) extends the definition to refer to the “treatment of mental and substance use disorders; and the support of those who experience and/or are in recovery from these conditions, along with their families and communities."

The same definition holds true for aging adults, but requires an added layer of discernment. When it comes to behavioral health issues, certain behaviors can be misinterpreted as a natural product of aging, whether it’s overmedicating after a procedure, increasing alcohol intake while coping with the loss of a loved one, or experiencing major depressive episodes.

The truth is, behavioral health issues are prevalent in older Americans, and proper management begins with identifying their sometimes difficult-to-recognize symptoms.

Addressing behavioral health as we age

Left untreated, older Americans can be at particular risk for developing behavioral health complications like depression and anxiety. It may be why substance abuse among adults ages 50 to 64 has been steadily increasing over the past two decades.

Some behavioral health conditions can be even more challenging to recognize and diagnose because of stigma or atypical presentations; serious issues may arise without visible changes in mood or affect. Social isolation, for example, has been proven to have negative health effects on older populations. And it’s of particular concern as we all navigate the realities of COVID-19, when physical distancing puts the human need for community at odds with our responsibility to slow the spread of the disease.

The good news is that, today, there are more pathways than ever for addressing harmful patterns and behaviors, before they escalate. A wide range of educational resources, hotlines, and treatment facilities are available with little more than an internet or phone connection.

Finding help

The best approach to stronger behavioral health is prevention: maintaining behaviors and activities that promote the well-being of mind, body, and spirit. However, if a behavioral health condition should develop, the best treatment is always an early treatment. The sooner you can schedule a meeting with a trained professional, the sooner they can properly evaluate signs and symptoms of true behavioral health issues, and the sooner they can recommend a treatment plan.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that many behavioral health conditions can be addressed through a combination of counseling and/or medications, though there is no catch-all approach. Every patient’s needs and symptoms are related to their life stage and surrounding circumstances. It only follows that their treatment should be tailored to these factors.

Traditional psychotherapy is a great place to start. Psychotherapy serves as one of the most common and effective practices to help patients address their thinking patterns and improve their day-to-day functions, addressing a variety of issues from depression to marital problems. Specific forms of psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, have proven particularly effective in older populations.

Giving back through organizations like Meals on Wheels or finding online communities can also help strengthen behavioral health.

Blue Shield is also proud to offer psychotherapy treatments through Teladoc. If you have concerns about behavioral health issues, whether for yourself or someone you care about, we can connect you with a board-certified physician online or over the phone, so you can discuss the best course of treatment moving forward.

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