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Common Mental Illnesses in the Elderly

Mental illness is common in seniors, but it may go overlooked. Friends and family of an older adult struggling with a mental health disorder may notice the change in mood or behavior, but they might believe it’s a normal part of aging. Mental illnesses in seniors are often attributed to cognitive decline, social isolation, or physical health problems.

Mental health disorders are treatable in people of all ages. Before receiving treatment, though, the individual or their caregivers must realize that something is wrong. By learning about the most common disorders in seniors, you can recognize the signs in yourself or a loved one.

Senior Mental Health Statistics

Groups like the CDC and the World Health Organization regularly conduct surveys and research studies to learn more about the prevalence of mental illness in older adults. Here are some fast facts about elderly mental health:

  • About 15 percent of adults age 60 and older have a mental disorder.
  • Around 1 in 6 seniors experience elder abuse, which can be a major contributor to mental illness.
  • Older men have the highest rate of suicide of all age groups.
  • About 12 percent of seniors age 65 and older reported that they rarely or never receive social support. Men are more likely than women to report not receiving support.
  • Up to 63 percent of seniors with a mental health problem don’t receive the services needed to recover.
  • Primary care physicians fail to diagnose depression in half of cases.

These statistics can be alarming, but it’s important to remember that support is available to older adults. Elderly mental health disorders should not be considered normal, and they should not be accepted as a normal part of aging. Most seniors are emotionally and psychologically happy and healthy, and those who are struggling with mental health symptoms can get better with treatment.

Risk Factors and Causes of Health Issues in Seniors

While it’s impossible to predict who may develop a mental health disorder, there are some risk factors that increase the chances. The following are some of the most common triggers for mental illness in seniors:

  • Chronic pain or other physical health problems
  • Reduced mobility
  • Social isolation
  • Dementia or cognitive decline
  • Grief or widowhood
  • Malnutrition
  • Medication side effects


If you or a loved one experience any of these challenges, you should be especially vigilant about elderly mental health.

Most Common Mental Illnesses in Seniors

Any disorder that affects younger adults can also affect seniors. Sometimes, elderly adults have been struggling with the same illness since they were young. Other times, the disorder develops for the first time in older age.

Here Are Some of the Most Common Elderly Mental Health Concerns:


Depression is the most common elderly mental health disorder, affecting around 5 percent of seniors around the world. The illness causes a long-term change in mood or a lack of interest in preferred activities. Here are some of the signs and symptoms of depression in seniors:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, guilty, or empty
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping excessively
  • Physical pains without a clear cause
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Restlessness or irritability

Some of these symptoms are normal for short periods of time, especially after a major life event. However, if they continue for more than two weeks, they may be a sign of a mental health problem.

Fortunately, depression is one of the most treatable mental health conditions. Around 80 percent of seniors with depression get better with treatment.


Anxiety is the second-most common mental disorder in older adults after depression. According to the World Health Organization, anxiety disorders affect 3.8 percent of seniors.

Anxiety is an umbrella term that includes several specific diagnoses. Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent, excessive worry. Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, involves worry and self-consciousness in social situations. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is marked by recurring, intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors that ease those those thoughts.

In many cases, anxiety leads to physical health symptoms like a racing heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, or digestive problems. Older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than emotional ones, so these health complaints without a known cause can indicate anxiety.

Feelings of anxiety and nervousness are normal in certain situations. Anxiety becomes a mental health concern when it persists for a long period of time, doesn’t have a valid cause, or starts to interfere with your daily functioning.

Substance Use Disorder

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around 1 million seniors have a substance use disorder. Here are some of the criteria used to diagnose the illness:

  • Cravings or urges to use the substance
  • Using the substance even though it causes relationship problems
  • Giving up on other activities to use the substance
  • Wanting to stop but being unable to
  • Building up a tolerance to the substance

Older adults are prescribed more medications on average than younger adults. Some of these medicines have the potential to be abused. For example, an individual with a substance use disorder may take their pain medication more frequently or in larger doses than intended.

Around 65 percent of seniors report high-risk drinking, and one in 10 older adults reports binge drinking. You may become more sensitive to the effects of drugs and alcohol as you age, which makes you more vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder.

Bipolar Disorder


Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood. It isn’t as common of an elderly mental health concern as depression and anxiety, but its effects can be very harmful if untreated.


Individuals with bipolar disorder alternative between periods of mania and periods of depression. During mania, you may feel euphoric, powerful, and energetic. Mania can cause difficulty sleeping, racing thoughts, and reckless behavior. Following the manic episode, people with bipolar disorder experience depression.


Like other conditions, bipolar is often mistaken for dementia or other cognitive issues in older adults. For example, a senior experiencing a manic episode may speak very quickly or for a long time without stopping, and their family may not understand what they’re talking about. This may appear to be a sign of dementia, but it’s actually caused by mania.


Bipolar disorder is a lifelong mental illness, so those who are diagnosed in their younger years will continue to experience the disorder as they age. About 10 percent of cases are diagnosed after age 50. However, counseling and medication can be very effective for reducing and managing the symptoms.


Mental illness can affect you emotionally, cognitively, and physically. These disorders are tough to manage without support, so it’s important to seek help if you’re concerned about your mental health. Your later years should be your opportunity to enjoy time with family and friends and partake in the activities you love. To ensure that you’re living life to the fullest, be aware of the signs and symptoms of these common disorders, and check in with yourself about your mental well-being.


If you or your loved one is struggling with a mental disorder, reach out to Blue Moon Senior Counseling. Our therapists specialize in working with older adults on a wide variety of mental health goals, and we are happy to connect with you.

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