Mental Sharpness in Older Adults: Check on Your Mood Before Blaming Your Mind
- Your mood may affect your mind’s ability to think and function as it should.
- To get help for mood changes, talking to your primary care physician can be a good starting point as they can refer you to a specialized health care professional if necessary.
- Having a conversation about your mood or mind changes can be difficult. Scheduling a telehealth appointment rather than an in-person visit may make the first step easier.
You may have started noticing changes in how mentally sharp you are. If so, you’re not alone.
But before jumping to the conclusion that an age-related disease is the reason for thinking difficulties, checking up on your mood is an important step. Research has shown that your mood may impact your mind’s ability to work at its best.
What do changes in mood look like for older adults?
Our mood can be affected by situations and circumstances. Below is a list of mood symptoms that are important to recognize if you have begun noticing changes in your thinking.(The National Institute of Mental Health offers a complete list of mood symptoms):
- Less interest in activities you enjoy
- New feelings of guilt or feeling helpless
- Noticeable changes in your energy levels
- Difficulty sleeping, waking up earlier or sleeping longer than usual
- New aches and pains or digestive problems
Important note: Displaying some of these symptoms does not mean you have or will be diagnosed with a physical or mental health issue. But if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, starting a conversation with your doctor or other health care professional may benefit your mood, thinking abilities, or both.
What do changes in thinking abilities look like?
Changes in your thinking abilities may be difficult to recognize and even more difficult to describe to someone. Just a few examples of changes in your thinking ability that are worth discussing with your health care provider:
- Increased difficulty remembering things
- Trouble managing life tasks (such as finances, organization)
- Issues with multitasking (for example, holding a conversation while cooking a meal)
Not sure if changes in your thinking are worth bringing up to your health care team? Check out this comparison between normal and disease-related thinking changes from the National Institute on Aging.
What kind of health care professional should I see about my mood and thinking?
Different health care providers specialize in different areas, which can make it challenging to identify a professional that best suits your needs. Beginning the conversation with your primary care physician is a good starting point. From there, they may refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist. Many of these professionals have similar and overlapping roles, but there are key differences between them.
- Family medicine physician. Also known as your primary care physician, this is typically the doctor you see for your annual health check-up. They are your first contact when it comes to health questions/concerns and can refer you to a specialist if appropriate. Family physicians consider how a patient’s community and family can affect their health (and vice versa). To better understand a family physician’s role, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians website.
- Nurse practitioner. Registered nurses who obtain master’s or doctoral degrees are called nurse practitioners. They have more autonomy than a registered nurse because of their ability to diagnose and prescribe medication, but still work in collaboration with a health care team and physician supervisor. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners offers this deeper description of their role.
- Physician associate. Formerly known as ‘physician assistants’ and commonly referred to as PAs, these licensed clinicians work interdependently with physicians to provide care for patients in both general medicine as well as specialized medicine.
- Clinical psychologist. This is a professional who has received training in treating mental health issues through talk and/or behavior therapy. Most clinical psychologists are unable to prescribe medications. If you are primarily interested in learning more about medications that can benefit your mood, a psychiatrist would be a better fit. The American Psychological Association can offer more information on the role of a clinical psychologist.
- Psychiatrist. This is a physician specializing in mental health who can prescribe medications if appropriate. While some psychiatrists may offer talk therapy in addition to medication treatment, many may recommend a psychologist if talk therapy is of interest to you. The American Psychiatric Associaiton offers this detailed description of psychiatry.
- Therapist, licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Therapists, counselors, and clinical social workers are very similar to one another and may provide similar advice. While therapists, licensed mental health counselors, and licensed clinical social workers all focus on the mental health of their clients, their qualifications differ. Mental health counselors and licensed clinical social workers may use a short-term approach to address specific client challenges. Therapists tend to have more long-term relationships with clients to gain a deeper understanding of what is affecting a client’s mental health, and why.
How do I start this conversation about mental sharpness with my health care team?
1. Gather your thoughts—Write down your concerns and questions on paper.
This can help keep your thoughts organized when having the conversation about your mood or mind changes with your health care provider.
2. Schedule a medical checkup with your primary care physician—Having a telehealth appointment rather than an in-person visit may make the conversation easier.
This visit can give your primary care doctor the opportunity to refer you to a specialist if needed. If you feel your concerns are not being taken seriously, you have the right to a second opinion!
3. If meeting with your primary care physician is not an option, you can use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to find local mental health professionals near you.
Or try reputable telehealth mental health services like Amwell, TalkSpace, or Cerebral. Read this article by the American Psychological Association for more information on choosing a telehealth mental health service.
NCOA hosts the annual Older Adult Mental Health Awareness Day to highlight critical issues in addressing mental health needs as we age.
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