Alaska seniors' struggles with behavioral health conditions lead to higher mortality rates

Q: Seniors in Alaska have a higher mortality rate due to behavioral health conditions. What are some of the leading causes of death among seniors in Alaska, and how we can work to improve behavioral health outcomes for this population?

A: Correct, as Alaskan seniors struggle with behavioral health conditions, their mortality rates increase. Let’s examine more about the impact of these conditions and what resources are available.

In February 2019 the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services released a report that shows the state’s older population has a higher mortality rate for suicide and substance abuse linked to behavioral health conditions.

Data from that report states seniors account for only 18 percent of the Alaska population but accounted for 33 percent of all suicides and 28 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2017.

According to the Administration on Aging, in 2013 there were over 71,000 seniors living in Alaska. Out of this population, it is estimated that around 15% have a behavioral health condition. This is significantly higher than the national average of 11%.

Moreover, additional information from a University of Alaska Anchorage study showed older adults who have behavioral health conditions – such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse problems – mortality was more than three times higher than for those without these conditions. The leading causes of death among seniors with behavioral health conditions were cancer, heart disease, accidents and suicide. Suicide rates are especially high for those over the age of 65, and often stem from untreated mental health conditions. The research was based on data from the state’s Division of Public Health, which includes all deaths that occurred in Alaska between 2002 and 2014.

These deaths could be prevented by improving healthy behavior, and access to mental health services. Behavioral health conditions can negatively impact any stage of life, but they are especially harmful to older adults.

Identifying trouble

One of the biggest problems with behavioral health conditions among older adults is that they often go undetected. Many times, families are not aware that their loved one has a problem until it’s too late. This is why it is important for seniors to get regular checkups by their doctor, and for caretakers and family to report any observable changes in behavior to a health professional. Early detection and intervention are key in recognizing conditions as a medical problem needing immediate attention.

Nearly one in five older adults say their mental health has gotten worse since the pandemic began in March 2020, and an equal percentage say their sleep has suffered in that time too. More than one in four say they’re more anxious or worried than before the COVID-19 era, according to a poll of people ages 50 to 80 by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

The University of Alaska report also found that seniors are more likely to have multiple behavioral health conditions, which can lead to poorer health outcomes.

“This study provides evidence that we need to do more to support seniors with behavioral health conditions,” said study author Dr. Katherine Sward. “These conditions are often treatable, but many seniors don’t receive the care they need.”

What can be done?

Seniors in Alaska need access to quality mental health care. In rural areas there can be a lack of mental health services available for seniors, which could lead to increased rates of suicide and addiction. These diseases can be managed if detected early.

Data from polling indicates that older adults are more open to seeking mental health help than past research might suggest, with 71% saying they wouldn’t hesitate to see a mental health professional in the future, and 13% saying they had talked with their primary care provider about a new mental health concern since the pandemic began.

Older Alaskans also need access to substance abuse treatment. Alcohol and drug abuse are common among seniors and can lead to serious health problems. Treatment is available for those who need it, but often many older adults don’t know where to find it.

There are a variety of ways to improve the behavioral health of older adults. Some approaches include:

-improving access to mental health services, including outpatient and residential treatment programs

-increasing availability of medication management services

-enhancing support for family caregivers

-promoting social and recreational activities that reduce isolation and loneliness.

“As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, with most older adults getting vaccinated, it’s important to ensure adequate access to mental health screening and care to detect and address any lingering effects of this prolonged period of stress,” says Lauren Gerlach, D.O., M.Sc., a geriatric psychiatrist. “This is especially important to those who might have a harder time accessing mental health care, including those with lower incomes and worse physical health.”

The Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services is working to address these issues by increasing awareness of behavioral health conditions among the senior population and their caregivers. All research findings highlight the importance of screening and treatment for behavioral health conditions in older adults. Alaska’s Division of Behavioral Health offers a range of services for seniors, including counseling, support groups and medication management.

This information is important to know because it can help to understand how to screen for and treat behavioral health conditions in the aging population. If you or someone you know is struggling with a behavioral health condition, please call 2-1-1 or the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health at 800-770-3930 or search for help.

If you have additional questions or would like more information about how to create your own unique plan for wellness, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Karen Casanovas is a professional healthy aging coach in Alaska. Contact her at or through her website at

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