Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in the Elderly

Jun 20, 2016

Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in the Elderly

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Bipolar disorder, simply put, is a mental disorder displayed by periods of depression and periods of mania or elation. Most commonly, people with Bipolar disorder will suffer from weeks or months of depression symptoms, followed by weeks or months of the manic phase. Within these phases, the individual may have an episode, in which the symptoms worsen for a period of a few days or weeks.

After being diagnosed by a medical professional, most patients will start taking medications to help keep their symptoms at bay. While medications can help, it does not cure Bipolar disorder. Those suffering from the illness are typically diagnosed in their 20’s, 30’s or 40’s, but some individuals do not get diagnosed until much later in adulthood.

Bipolar Disorder in Seniors

When seniors are diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, it’s often believed that this is a new disorder for the individual, rather than assuming they’ve gone undiagnosed for a number of years. It’s often believed that late-onset Bipolar disorder “co-occurs” with other disorders. Examples of these other disorders include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • ADHD
  • Panic/Stress Disorders

Most physicians and researchers still believe that late-onset Bipolar disorder has something to do with the individual’s genetics, there’s thought that illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can change the brain’s chemistry enough for the individual to begin displaying signs of Bipolar. Other commonalities within patients that are diagnosed with late-onset Bipolar disorder include Benson’s syndrome, Cerebrovascular Disease, and White Matter Hyperintensities.

Common Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Despite the fact that seniors often display symptoms of Bipolar disorder differently than younger individuals, they are still likely to experience some of the most common symptoms. These symptoms include:

Manic Phase

  • Euphoria
  • Elevated Mood
  • Weight Loss
  • Rapid/Scattered Speaking
  • Delusions
  • Inability to Concentrate
  • Excessive Desire for Sex
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to fall Asleep/Stay Asleep
  • Taking Unnecessary Risks
  • Acting Impulsively

Depression Phase

  • Constant feelings of Sadness/Hopelessness
  • Loss of Interest
  • Crying Often
  • Thoughts of Self Harm
  • Weight Gain
  • General Slowness (thought, activity, etc.)
  • Sleeping too much/Constantly Tired

Although it’s likely that those with late-onset Bipolar disorder experience these symptoms, they often experience them in a different way. Seniors with this disorder tend to become withdrawn and no longer show interest in spending time with friends and family. Similarly, they may become bossy and excessively seek help for everyday tasks that they typically do not need help with, and becoming over-dependent on the individual caring for them. Many individuals lose their sense of worth, often due to retirement, or other life changing events.

Seeking Help

If an individual is worried that he or she may be suffering from any of the signs or symptoms of Bipolar disorder, seek the help of a physician immediately. This disorder can be very serious, but is also very manageable with the help of medication. Furthermore, many senior care facilities offer helpful options for people that are suffering from late-onset Bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What treatments are available for LOBD?

Some of the most commonly prescribed medications for bipolar disorder are lithium carbonate and valproic acid (Depakote). Antidepressants may also be prescribed, however, their usage is not without risk. Again, since the causes of LOBD are still somewhat unknown, there have been debates within the medical community as to which method of treatment is the most effective. 

Electroconvulsive Therapy: This treatment is sometimes used for patients who are severely depressed or manic, and who do not respond well to medications. This can be a quick and efficient way to help people who are at a high risk for attempting suicide. The procedure involves inducing a grand mal seizure lasting less than one minute by the use of electrodes placed on the scalp. 

Although the method lost public credibility following distorted and negative portrayals in 1960’s media coverage, modern procedures have been shown as both safe and effective.

Vagus or Vagal Nerve Stimulation (VNS): Involves a small device implanted into the vagus nerve in order to mitigate depressive symptoms.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS): A small electromagnetic coil treats the symptoms of depression by stimulating nerves in the mood centers of the brain.

Light Therapy: For people suffering from bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder, sitting under a special light box capable of emitting full-spectrum light can help to treat depressive symptoms associated with the changes in weather.

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What are some of the causes of late-onset bipolar disorder?

The causes of late-onset bipolar disorder are not known, however, researchers believe that a number of factors may contribute to the disorder. Some of these include genetics, neurological or cognitive disorders, and environmental factors.

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