Older Adults from Ethnic Minority Groups Aren't Necessarily Less Likely to Develop Mental Health Problems Than Other Older Americans
Some research has suggested that adults from ethnic minority groups -- such as Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans -- are less likely to suffer from depression than non-Latino white adults are. But these studies have focused on younger adults, not older people.
Knowing whether older adults from certain ethnic groups are more likely to suffer from depression or other mental health problems than other seniors is important. It can help clinicians recognize possible symptoms of these problems in older adults.
Because people from ethnic minority groups make up the fastest growing segment of the older population, learning more about their risks of mental health problems is very important.
New Research in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
To get a better sense of whether older adults from certain ethnic backgrounds run higher risks of mental health problems than others, researchers recently studied nearly 2,400 adults from differing backgrounds. All were 60 or older and lived in the community, rather than in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Because the majority of older adults in the US are non-Latino whites, the researchers compared the rates of several mental health problems in older non-Latino Whites with the rates in older Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, and Afro-Caribbeans.
These mental health problems included depression, anxiety, dysthymia (mild, ongoing depression), and substance abuse, among others.
The researchers compared rates of mental health problems among the older adults over a 12-month period and over each adult's lifetime.
Because some studies have suggested that immigrants run lower risks of mental health problems than those born in the US, the researchers also compared the incidence of these problems in US-born older adults and immigrants in each ethnic group.
Some, but not all, of the researchers' results were similar to findings from previous studies. The researchers found, for example, that, over their lifetimes, older non-Latino Whites had higher rates of several mental health problems than older Asian, African-American and Afro-Caribbean adults. The researchers also found that rates of alcohol and drug problems were lower among Asians than non-Latino Whites, and that older African-Americans had lower lifetime rates of depression than non-Latino whites. These findings are in keeping with those of other studies of adults in general.
Other findings differed from those of earlier research. The researchers found, for example, that, over their lifetimes, older Latinos were just as likely to have mental health problems as non-Latino Whites. In addition, older Latinos had higher rates of depression over the preceding 12 months than non-Latino Whites, they found. While previous studies of adults in general studies suggest that immigrants tend to run lower risks of mental health problems than those born in the US, the researchers found this wasn't always the case with older adults. Older Latinos who had immigrated to the US had higher rates of dysthymia and anxiety over their lifetimes, and higher rates of anxiety over a 12-month period than US- born Latinos, the researchers found. They also found that older Asian immigrants had higher lifetime rates of anxiety than older Asians born in the US. Not only immigrant status, but also age at time of immigration, seems to affect risks of mental health problems in later life, the researchers report.
All told, the new research findings suggest that, in later life, rates of mental health problems among ethnic groups and between immigrants and native-born older adults are more varied than previous studies suggest, the researchers conclude.
What Should I Do?
The earlier mental health problems are treated, the better. Untreated, these problems can undermine health and can take the joy out of life.
Fortunately, there are many effective treatments for depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in later life. Recognizing signs of these illnesses, and getting help from your healthcare provider as soon as possible is essential.
The summary above is from the full report titled, "Prevalence of Psychiatric Illnesses among Ethnic Minority Older Adults." It is in the February 2010 issue of The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (Volume 59, Issue 2). The report is authored by Daniel E. Jimenez, Ph.D., Margarita Alegría, Ph.D., Chih-nan Chen, Ph.D., Domin Chan, Ph.D., and Mara Laderman, B.A.