Main health concerns for older veterans

Created date

October 30th, 2019
An older man, wearing a grey sweatshirt, sits in a chair, his head in his hands.

According to the National Veterans Foundation, more than 5.7 million Americans served during the Korean War era, and today there are still approximately over 2.25 million of them still alive. According to the U.S. Census, about 75% of the over 9 million Vietnam-era veterans are still living.

Veterans and the state of their health is studied fairly extensively, so have researchers learned anything that older veterans need to know?

Veterans’ physical health

Turns out that the overall physical health of older veterans is really no different from other men their age. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in recent years, the death rate for Vietnam-era veterans has been comparable to—or lower than—nonveterans. 

In addition, veterans tend to have many of the same health problems as nonveterans. “Some studies show that the most common chronic conditions among male veterans over age 65 are high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, and coronary heart disease,” says Carla Manly, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Aging Joyfully (2019, Familius). “Among older women veterans, common conditions include high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, and arthritis.”

Veterans’ mental health

Some experts believe that too many people disregard the effect a veteran’s military experience—whether in battle or stateside—can have on their emotional health, both in the short and long term. “When compared to nonveteran females, female veterans 80 and older reported significantly lower scores on surveys in several areas, including life satisfaction, social support, quality of life, and purpose in life,” Manly says.  “This appears to stem from many factors, including increased risk of sexual assault while in the service, the military lifestyle, or other unknown factors.”

Depression may be the most common problem. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 30% of veterans who visit their primary care doctors have at least some symptoms of depression. Some sources estimate that one-half to two-thirds of veterans do not receive treatment for depression. 

Late-in-life depression increases the risk for chronic illnesses and cognitive decline. In addition, depression and other emotional health problems among veterans puts them at increased risk of death by suicide. 

Among seniors overall (whether veterans or nonveterans), according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, older white males have the highest rates of death by suicide.

Not the typical depression symptoms

“Studies show that older adults will more readily seek treatment for physical ailments than emotional health problems,” says Wanda Montalvo, Ph.D., R.N., executive director of Jonas Nursing and Veteran’s Healthcare in New York, N.Y. “Since spouses, caregivers, and families often have the most interaction with an older adult, they may be the first to detect changes related to emotional health problems.”

These changes, however, may not be obvious. Families or friends may mistake a change in mood as being attributable to another condition, such as a dementia-related illness, the result of a stroke, heart disease, or thyroid dysfunction. “Conversely, depression symptoms can be somewhat masked by symptoms of other chronic conditions,” Montalvo adds.

You may not recognize symptoms of depression because they can be different in seniors than in younger adults. Typical signs in younger adults can be having a low mood, sleep and appetite disruptions, crying easily, and an inability to function at work or perform daily activities at home.

“In older adults, you may see vague complaints of pain, slower movements, irritability, or increased demanding behavior,” Montalvo says. “Many of today’s seniors are unwilling or unlikely to talk about their feelings, so if you ask if they feel depressed, the answer is likely to be ‘no’.”

Treatment and emergency intervention

Standard treatment for depression typically includes medication and counseling. In veterans, counseling has been shown to be especially beneficial.

“It is just as important to treat emotional health as it is to treat physical health,” Montalvo says. “Families need to be proactive to prevent a tragedy.”


Emotional health support for veterans

Whether you are a veteran; a nonveteran; or a loved one, friend, or caregiver for a senior, resources are available to get more information about mental illness, treatment, and crisis intervention. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889)

National Alliance on Mental Illness

nami.org

1-800-950-6264

U.S Department of Veterans Affairs 

mentalhealth.va.gov

Free confidential support: 

1-800-273-8255, press 1; send a text to 838255; or chat online (VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat)

PsychHub 

A website that offers educational and easy-to-understand videos about mental health conditions. 

psychhub.com/individuals

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