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Getting mental health care makes the body healthier — especially for the elderly

Taking care of our minds is an often neglected aspect of aging. What are we going to do about it?

  • Studies have shown that depression can worsen in our old age.
  • Other mental health concerns, too, are not only debilitating on their own but they can often make it more difficult to treat other health conditions.
  • However, recent advances in how we treat mental health in the elderly are making a big difference. Here's how.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that as we grow older, our bodies stop working as well as they once did. Our muscles weaken, tying our shoes can send our backs into spasms, our hearing and vision isn't as sharp as it used to be. It's a time when taking care of yourself is more important than ever.

But we often forget that our minds, too, need to be taken care of. According to the CDC, 20% of people over 55 have some kind of mental health concern. Yet only two-thirds of this group receive treatment for their condition. Out of any other group, older men have the highest suicide rate. One study found that older patients were more likely to be diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, and that their depression grew worse with age. Older participants were more likely to have chronic depression, took longer to be in remission, and experienced depression with greater severity, according to the same study.

While mental health is enough of a concern on its own, it can also make treating physical health issues more difficult. "There is no clear-cut demarcation where behavioral health comorbidities start and where physical comorbidities end," said Dr. Joseph Conigliaro, Northwell Health's chief of general internal medicine. "When a patient with diabetes or congestive heart failure or any number of issues also has depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia, providing consistent care becomes much more challenging."

Percentage of older adults who claim they don't receive the social and emotional support they need by state, which can put individuals at risk for developing mental health conditions.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. The State of Mental Health and Aging in America Issue Brief 1: What Do the Data Tell Us? Atlanta, GA: National Association of Chronic Disease Directors; 2008.

Bringing psychiatry to primary care

How can we better meet the mental health needs of elderly patients? In his book, Healthcare Reboot, Michael J. Dowling points to the divide between psychiatry and primary care as a major issue. "While it was true that psychiatrics went to medical school," he writes, "their subsequent clinical training was so far removed from other doctors that they tended to live in a psychiatric silo. In many ways, psychiatrists had walled themselves off from the rest of the medical profession."

A Gallup poll on the perceived honesty of various professions shows another way in which psychiatry has been pushed aside. 85%, 75%, and 70% of respondents reported that nurses, pharmacists, and medical doctors had very high ethical standards, respectively. Only 41% of respondents reported that psychiatrists had very high ethical standards.

One way to bring psychiatry back into the domain of primary care is to do just that; tighten the connections between psychiatrists and general practitioners through the collaborative care model. In this system, a behavioral health care manager and a psychiatrist are incorporated into the primary care setting. The psychiatrist serves as a consultant for the primary care physician and the behavioral health care manager, who could be a psychologist or a nurse trained in managing mental health. The primary care provider has some training in screening patients for mental health issues. Rather than refer them to a psychiatrist, they can instead point them to the behavioral health care manager. This helps normalize the relationship between mental health and primary care and can reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health conditions.

A study on the use of this model for older adults suffering from depression showed resounding success — using the collaborative care model doubled the efficacy of depression treatment. Over twelve months, half of the patients reported an at least 50% reduction in their depression symptoms compared with a 19% reduction in the control group. What's more, the system saves money. For every $1 spent on implementing the collaborative care model, hospitals get $7 back over the course of four years. Today, Northwell Health and other health care organizations have incorporated psychologists and other mental health professionals in their primary care clinics to help deliver the mental health care that elderly patients need.

Photo by Anthony Metcalfe on Unsplash

Virtual reality: Not just for gaming

Addressing mental health issues in the elderly doesn't just have to take place in hospitals and clinics, however. Advances in technology are blurring the lines of where treatment can happen. Rendever, for instance, is a new project by MIT graduates that uses VR to help provide the elderly with mental health treatment. VR has the potential to serve as a powerful therapeutic tool for older adults, especially those in assisted living. Often, older adults in assisted living can feel isolated and trapped in their conditions; VR offers an avenue out of those conditions. In an interview with AARP, a co-founder of Rendever related a story about an isolated former pilot flying a simulated aircraft: "All of a sudden he was sitting in a pilot seat again, and all these stories started bubbling out of him." VR technology like Rendever have been used to treat PTSD, chronic pain, phobias, depression, and drug addiction. There's even some preliminary evidence that VR could be used to keep cognitive function sharp in old age.

From the clinic to the home

One major challenge for the elderly is mobility. It's not always practical for them to travel to a clinic, psychiatrist, or psychologist. The use of "virtual visits" has become increasingly more common for health organizations. Companies like Apple and Samsung are increasingly leveraging their smartphone technologies to provide easier access to healthcare records and tackle chronic conditions. For its part, Northwell researchers have helped pioneer the use of remote intensive care units, or eICUs, to watch over multiple patients at once from a central location.

It may seem as though technology like this wouldn't be useful for psychiatric issues; in fact, the opposite is true. For the elderly, easy access to a psychiatrist may make them more likely to reach out. For patients in assisted-living facilities or unable to travel, "telepsychiatry" is sometimes the only way they can gain access to a psychiatrist.

When it comes to the health of the elderly, a broken hip or a pneumonia diagnosis can overshadow the importance of maintaining a healthy mind in one's older years. Taking care of one's physical health will always be important, especially in geriatric patients, but it doesn't make sense to focus solely on treating a physical health issue while ignoring ongoing mental health concerns. Fortunately, advances in our institutions, systems, and technology are bringing mental health issues back into the spotlight.

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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

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  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
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  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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