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Does PTSD Get Worse as You Get Older?

Mental health doesn’t always remain constant across the lifespan. Some of the challenges you faced as a younger adult may fade away with age, but you may experience new hardships as you get older.
One of the more common mental health disorders among seniors is PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. This condition can develop after you experience or witness a traumatic event, such as war, a serious accident, or the death of a close family member. PTSD can affect people at any age, but for some, the symptoms get worse later in life. If you or a loved one has experienced trauma, you should understand the link between PTSD and aging and the common signs of post-traumatic stress.

Statistics on PTSD in Older Adults

Although PTSD isn’t as widely studied as some other mental health conditions, researchers have learned a good deal about trauma and how it affects people across the lifespan. Here are some statistics that highlight the prevalence of PTSD in seniors:
• Between 1.5 and 4 percent of adults over 60 have PTSD.
• Between 7 and 15 percent of older adults show some symptoms of post-traumatic stress without meeting the full diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
• One study reported that the prevalence of current PTSD in older male combat veterans is 29 percent.
• About 70 to 90 percent of older adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
• Research suggests that PTSD is less prevalent among older veterans than among younger veterans.
It’s difficult to know with certainty how many seniors are affected by PTSD and whether or not the condition is more common in older adults. Some studies suggest that rates of PTSD in older adults are lower than rates of PTSD in younger adults. However, this could be explained by the fact that seniors are less likely to talk about their mental health struggles. Older adults tend to be more private and reserved about their mental health, so even if they’re experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, they may not tell anyone.
Because they’ve lived longer, older adults are also more likely to have experienced a traumatic event. The majority of seniors have been through at least one trauma. Experiencing trauma doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll develop PTSD, but it is possible to show post-traumatic stress symptoms without meeting the criteria for PTSD. Some researchers suggest that many seniors struggle with post-traumatic stress, but because they don’t meet the full criteria to be diagnosed with PTSD, they aren’t included in the statistics on the disorder.

Common Challenges for Seniors With PTSD

As you age, you may face some new challenges that could affect your experiences with trauma. Life transitions or changes in physical or cognitive health can make the symptoms of PTSD in seniors worse. Even if you’ve never experienced the symptoms of post-traumatic stress before, you may start to feel more affected by a past trauma when you get older.
One of the biggest challenges for some older adults who have been through trauma is extra free time. Retirement can be a great opportunity to rest, find new hobbies, and enjoy time with friends and family. For some people, though, work creates a distraction from a past trauma and its emotional effects. When you go from working full-time to spending most of your time at home, you may feel confronted with the emotions that you had successfully avoided for a long time.
If your career was a major part of your identity, you may also feel a loss of purpose after retirement. This can affect your overall mental and emotional health, and it can make the symptoms of PTSD in later life difficult to manage.
Isolation and loneliness are serious problems for many older adults, too. You may lose touch with work friends after you retire, or you may have a harder time seeing friends and family if you have mobility or health issues. Without a strong support network, it may feel harder to cope with your trauma.
Changes in your physical abilities may be another explanation for an increase in PTSD symptoms. If you used to cope with trauma with an activity that’s no longer accessible to you, the challenges associated with post-traumatic stress will become a bigger presence in your life. For example, some people use exercise to cope with mental health struggles, but health issues later in life may prevent them from working out the way they used to.
Fortunately, though, there are plenty of adaptive ways for seniors to participate in a wide variety of hobbies. Even if you can’t engage in your preferred activities in exactly the same way, you may be able to find something similar that offers the same benefits.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in Later Life

People often overlook PTSD in later life because they find other explanations for the signs or symptoms. For example, loved ones may think a senior’s hesitation to leave home is because they’re afraid of falling, not because of past trauma. Sometimes, PTSD in older adults is mistaken for cognitive decline.
Knowing the common signs and symptoms of PTSD in later life is the key to recognizing the condition in yourself or a loved one. You should be especially watchful for changes in mood or behavior that don’t have a clear explanation.
Here are some of the most common indicators of PTSD in seniors:
• Purposeful withdrawal or isolation from friends and family.
• Angry outbursts, frequent irritability, or other sudden changes in mood.
• Lack of sleep or sleeping too much.
• Reliving the traumatic event through flashbacks.
• Complaints of muscle tension, headaches, nausea, or other physical symptoms without a clear cause.
• Startling easily.

Managing PTSD in Seniors

Older adults may be more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress, and they may start to show more signs of PTSD in later life. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to struggle with your trauma for the rest of your life. At any age, support is available.
The biggest obstacle for treating post-traumatic stress in seniors is recognizing the problem. Seniors are less likely to reach out for support for their mental health, and family or friends may not think of PTSD as an explanation for changes in mood, cognition, or behavior. The best thing loved ones of older adults can do to support their mental health is to take the symptoms seriously.
Managing PTSD in later life is possible with mental health counseling, family support, and other resources. Senior therapy is especially effective for those who are experiencing a sudden onset or increase in PTSD symptoms. During counseling, you can process the traumatic event, explore how it has affected your life, and discover strategies to cope with the ongoing challenges your trauma created.
Whether you’ve had a long-term struggle with PTSD or are facing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress for the first time, you deserve support and compassion. There are a number of reasons why PTSD can become more difficult to manage later in life, but help is available. You can learn to cope with your trauma and enjoy a peaceful, healthy retirement.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy for trauma, PTSD, and many other mental health challenges that are common in older adults. If you or a loved one is interested in counseling, contact us today.

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