It’s almost become a cliché at this point to claim that Americans are too overly medicated for their mental health issues. However, a new study from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests that it may very well be true for the elderly.

The study found that adults over the age of sixty-five were twice as likely to be prescribed psychotropic medication during an outpatient visit than their younger counterparts (those between the age of 21 to 64), despite the fact that the rate of diagnoses related to mental health was only slightly higher among the former. Older adults were also less likely to either receive care from a psychiatrist or be given psychotherapy.

"Our findings suggest that psychotropic medication use is widespread among older adults in outpatient care, at a far higher rate than among younger patients," said study author Dr. Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Health System, in a statement. "In many cases, especially for milder depression and anxiety, the safer treatment for older adults who are already taking multiple medications for other conditions might be more therapy-oriented, but very few older adults receive this sort of care."

The authors analyzed data taken from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 2007 to 2010, looking at more than 100,000 outpatient visits. They then further focused on visits where a patient had either received a diagnosis of a mental disorder, was prescribed drugs such as antidepressants, saw a psychiatrist, or was given a session of psychotherapy. They finally mapped out these findings over data taken from the U.S. Census to come up with a visit rate per population.

The percentage of visits related to mental health was slightly lower among adults over the age of sixty-five compared to those under sixty-five, when taking into account the total amount of outpatient visits (18.1 to 19.2 percent). But, after adjusting for population, the annual rate of mental health visits was more than double among older adults (121 visits per every 100 people compared to around 57 visits per every 100 people).

Because these visits often result in a prescription, older adults are much more likely to encounter complex and possibly dangerous drug interactions. "We need to pay special attention to polypharmacy, or multiple drugs taken at once, when prescribing psychotropic drugs in this population, because so many older adults are already on multiple medications," said Maust.

But the takeaway from this study shouldn’t be that any one population, older adults included, is being overdiagnosed with mental health issues.

According to the World Health Organization , people whose symptoms fit the criteria of a distinct psychological disorder are properly identified by health care professionals less than half of the time. The problem then, according to Maust, is in finding the best and safest avenue to provide aid to those suffering mentally and emotionally.

"While it's still true that we have patients who are not getting treated for mental health concerns, these data suggest that we also need to be mindful of the possibility of overtreatment, especially given the changing balance of risk and benefit as patients age," Maust said. "Collaborative care efforts in primary care that seek to create structure and support for these patients, along with appropriate reimbursement for this type of service, could be key."

Source: Maust D, Kales H, Blow F. Mental Health Care Delivered to Younger and Older Adults by Office-Based Physicians Nationally. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2015.