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Women's Mental Health and Aging » Women's Courage

Women's Mental Health and Aging

February 23rd, 2011 by ritam1 Leave a reply »

Aging is a universal experience that most people will grapple with during their lifetime. However, I hope to explore how aging (like most aspects of life) becomes gendered and differentially impacts women’s health outcomes. Additionally, in exploring women’s experience with aging, I will primarily focus on mental disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to understand how these issues impact women’s quality of life.

When looking at mental health issues in aging we notice problems with depression, anxiety, and loss. On the other side of the mental health spectrum, we have women who are also susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and other factors that contribute to dementia. With the passage of time, our brains begin to change in ways that affect how we store memories. In middle age, forgetfulness or mixing up facts can sometimes seem like an early sign of Alzheimer’s, but this is actually quite common. However, knowing when forgetting isn’t a normal part of aging is crucial to receiving a correct diagnosis and treating the problem if it is not dementia (1). Dementia is a group of symptoms caused by (among others) Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, personality changes, and difficulty with normal activities like eating or dressing. Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that cripples the brain’s nerve cells over time and destroys memory and learning. It usually starts in old age and is degenerative, leading to symptoms like loss of memory, problems in thinking, and other changes in normal behavior (1). Serious memory lapses can lead to confused behavior like asking the same question over again, forgetting how to use everyday objects, becoming lost in familiar places, and neglecting personal safety and hygiene.

While one cannot necessarily stop time from taking a toll on the brain and associated cognitive functions, there are several suggestions for activities that can keep your brain stimulated in old age and thereby improve memory and learning. Examples of such activities include: learning to play an instrument, doing crossword puzzles, starting a new hobby, staying informed about current events, and reading (1). Helping women stay active through their middle-aged years and educating them on the ways to keep their minds stimulated would be a great way to both encourage healthy aging and promote the feelings of self-actualization that improve their overall quality of health.

The greater lifetime expectancy for women translates into a greater lifetime risk to various diseases and age-related neurological diseases like stroke and dementia. Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine estimated that 1 in 6 women are at risk for developing Alzheimer’s in their lifetime, while the risk for men in 1 in 10 (2). These neurological diseases can have serious impacts on women’s quality of life, particularly when thinking about access to resources and opportunities. More importantly, pervasive gender inequalities that affect women throughout the lifespan thereby translate into older women living longer, but in persistent poverty and with limited access to health services. Former General Kofi Annan states, “Women comprise the majority of older person in all but a few countries. They are more likely than men to be poor in old age, and more likely to face discrimination,” (3). Consequently, the rights of older women become easy targets for violations on many levels, often rooted in cultural and social biases.

When thinking about the needs of aging women, I would like to focus on three main activities designed to promote the security, health, and dignity of women: promoting income security and poverty reduction in old age, identifying barriers to preventative health care, and finding better ways to provide caregiving for women (4). These are crucial points to consider when exploring women’s mental health as they are poised to impact the progression of mental disorders and overall quality of health in women. Ensuring that women have options and resources available when dealing with mental health problems hinges on their economic security and so governments must work to provide safety nets for financially unstable aging women as well as addressing structural and personal barriers to services in different communities.

Women face significant challenges when aging, still being influenced by the gender relations that structured their entire life cycle. Aging is an important issue for women because while everyone will experience its negative effects, they will indubitably experience it differently. Attempts to improve mental health and aging with dignity for women must center on empowering women through education and policy analysis (ex: monitoring Medicare provisions), while also highlighting the importance of staying engaged in the community and providing caregiving support.  Understanding differential risks for men and women in aging will help inform any strategy aimed at addressing women’s mental health and the design of adequate interventions.

Sources:

(1) Healthy Aging- http://www.womenshealth.gov/aging/mental-health/depression-anxiety.cfm

(2) Lifetime Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080318114824.htm

(3) Ageing, Discrimination, and Older Women’s Human Rights: www.globalaging.org/agingwatch/cedaw/cedaw.pdf

(4) Center on Women and Aging: http://iasp.brandeis.edu/womenandaging/mission.html

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1 comment

  1. vaughanbagley says:

    This is an interesting topic for your blog this week because it is not an obvious woman’s issue, but a global issue, perceived to be equal between both genders. While I understand your reference to women living longer leading to overall greater risks of acquiring certain degenerative diseases, I am still a little unclear as to how older women face more inequality than younger women. Over a woman’s lifetime, I would think that she is always at a disadvantage in the patriarchal world we inhabit, and that this gap does not grow with age. On the other hand, I would be interested to know the effects of aging women on the overall family in comparison to aging men. For example, men tend to be much more dependent on women than vis versa, so a woman experiencing dimentia might have a significant health effect on her husband, who cannot handle taking care of someone who has always taken care of him. Degenerative diseases in women rather than in men, I would assume, would be more problematic for families, and thus society as a whole. Did you find this in your research at all?
    With our increasingly growing global population, aging is continually brought to the forefront of policy issues from medicare, medicaid and social security to assisted living and medical expenses globally. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into this issue from a woman’s standpoint.

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