Symptoms and Risk Factors of Mental Illness in the Elderly

Mental illness is a serious problem affecting seniors, but many people don’t know how to spot it. According to the World Health Organization, about 15 percent of people over the age of 60 have a mental disorder. Their symptoms often go overlooked, though, because they’re attributed instead to changes in cognitive or physical health. Seniors may also be less likely to report their mental health struggles than younger adults.

Being aware of the symptoms and risk factors for mental illness in older adults can help you notice a problem in yourself or a loved one. Maintaining good mental health is critical for your quality of life, and identifying an issue is the first step toward healing.

Symptoms of Mental Illness in the Elderly

Different conditions can cause different symptoms, but there are a wide variety of signs that you or a loved one may be struggling with a mental health problem. Some are physical symptoms, some are emotional, and some are behavioral. They may either be internal experiences or external signs that others can notice.

Here are some of the most common warning signs of elderly mental health disorders:

  • Change in energy level
  • Struggling to sleep or sleeping more than usual
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling empty or numb
  • Feeling more angry or agitated than usual
  • Feeling guilty or hopeless
  • Change in appetite
  • Lack of motivation to complete activities of daily living
  • Withdrawing from friends or family; isolating at home
  • Rapid heartbeat, stomach pain, or digestive problems

Having one or two of these symptoms doesn’t mean that you have a mental illness. It’s normal and expected to experience some of these problems when going through a major life transition or dealing with a loss. However, if you or a loved one has been struggling with many of these symptoms for a while, it may be time to reach out for help.

Risk Factors for Mental Health Disorders

There are a number of experiences and situations that can increase the chances of older adults developing a mental disorder. Aging brings about a number of changes and challenges that can be difficult to cope with. Here are some of the most common risk factors for mental illness in seniors:

Death of Loved Ones

The death of a spouse, siblings, close friends, or other loved ones can be traumatic at any age. As we get older, it becomes more common to lose people, but coping with death never gets easier.

When a loved one passes away, you may start to feel more anxious about the idea of illness and death. You also have to adjust to living without the person, which can be a major change if they played an important role in your life. Anxiety and depression are both common after the death of a loved one.

Loss of Mobility

A decline in mobility can severely limit your freedom, which can be difficult to cope with. Mobility problems are linked to a loss of independence, and this can affect your sense of identity and self-esteem.

Being physically active is also a great way to improve your mental health, and mobility limitations may prevent you from getting adequate exercise. You may spend more time at home and less time with friends in the community, which can take a toll on your mental health as well.

Chronic Pain

Some of the most common causes of chronic pain in seniors include arthritis, neuropathy, osteoporosis, and cancer. Chronic pain can have a devastating effect on your mental health. You may feel anxiety about the possibility of a flare-up, or you may feel angry or hopeless while trying to cope with the pain. Chronic pain can lead to difficulty sleeping, too, which is directly linked to poor mental health.


Poor nutrition is a common problem in seniors. Loss of appetite can be a side effect of certain medications, and some older adults have trouble preparing nutritious meals because of mobility or dexterity problems.

Not only does nutrition play a key role in your physical health, but it also has a direct effect on your mental health. For example, your gastrointestinal tract is responsible for most of your body’s serotonin production. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, so inadequate nutrition can increase your risk of depression.

Alcohol, Drugs, or Medications

All kinds of substances can lead to issues with mental illness. Experts are seeing an increase in older adults who struggle with substances, which may be because drug and alcohol use was more common and normalized for people in the baby boom generation.

Substance use disorder is a mental illness in and of itself, but it also can make you more vulnerable to other mental conditions. Drugs and alcohol have an effect on brain chemistry and mood, so regular substance use can impact the way you process and express emotions.

Prescribed medications may affect elderly mental health, too. Seniors may take a wide variety of medication to help with pain or other health conditions, and some of these drugs may lead to symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Counseling for Mental Illness in the Elderly

Counseling can be a powerful experience for older adults who are experiencing a mental or emotional health issue. Seniors can work with a therapist to address a wide range of concerns:

It may be difficult to open up to a friend or family member about mental health concerns if you’re worried about judgment. A counselor is a trained professional who will remain unbiased, and your conversations are confidential. They can help you gain insight into your thought processes, discover healthy ways to deal with negative experiences, and set and achieve your goals.

Elderly mental health is an important issue that seniors, their families, and their caregivers must be aware of. If you or a loved one have any of the risk factors of mental illness, you should be especially watchful for the signs and symptoms. The sooner you notice that something is wrong, the sooner you can seek help and restore your quality of life.

Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers tele-therapy services for older adults in all 50 states. Our counselors specialize in elderly mental health, so they’re familiar with the challenges seniors face as they age. To learn more about how we can help you or your loved one, contact us today.

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