What to Know About Mental Health in Older Adults

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on March 01, 2024
3 min read

Mental health and physical health are a two-way street. As we get older, our physical health can often decline. That could mean adjusting to new health problems, having less independence, or adapting to a new environment. These events can affect the mental health of older adults in different ways.

Mental health in older adults often slips under the radar because it’s unidentified or unnoticed. Some people might think symptoms of depression, for example, are just a normal part of getting older. Access to mental health care and the stigma surrounding it can also create barriers for older adults who need treatment.

The world’s population is aging at a growing rate. From 2015 to 2050, the number of people aged 60 and up is expected to double. That’s going from about 900 million people to 2 billion adults over the age of 60.

One in 4 older adults experiences issues with their mental health. The most common issues are depression, dementia, and anxiety. Depression and dementia are the most common, affecting 5% to 7% of the population over 60. Anxiety follows as a close second, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that it affects 3.8% of older adults.

The mental health needs of older adults are unique. Transitional periods and emotional events like relocating, the death of loved ones, and bodily changes are common in people over 60.

The mental health issues faced by older adults are:

  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Dementia
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent mental distress
  • Suicide

Older adults have the highest rate of suicide when compared to other groups. People aged 85 and over have the highest rate, followed closely by adults aged 75-84.

Social isolation and loneliness are contributing factors, too. They’ve been linked to these physical illnesses and conditions: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Weak immune system
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cognitive decline

Loneliness and social isolation might sound similar, but they’re not necessarily the same. You might live alone but have an active social life and be surrounded by family and friends.

On the other hand, you can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people.

Humans are a social species. Not connecting to others or losing a sense of community can change our sense of the world around us and negatively impact our mental health. 

Depression and other mental health issues can make bodily illnesses worse and slow down recovery time. These issues can become complications and roadblocks to recovery, making it hard to do simple things like feed, care for, and clothe oneself. It’s important to remember that struggling with basic tasks isn’t always a sign of getting older or the life changes that accompany aging.

If you’re concerned about the mental health of a loved one, watch for these signs to see if anything is out of the ordinary:

  • Change in sleeping patterns — not enough sleep or oversleeping
  • High stress levels or constant worrying
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Trouble feeling positive emotions
  • Unusual ideas or behaviors
  • A need or dependence on drugs and alcohol
  • Feeling hopeless or giving up
  • Constant headaches and pain
  • Anger and irritability
  • Doing high-risk activities

Are you concerned about a loved one, or suspect their mental health might be changing for the worse? It’s normal to move at a slower pace as you get older, but a noticeable change in mood or memory could signal something more serious.

Take these steps to find out if your loved one might need help:

Ask questions. Take initiative and ask your loved ones how they’re feeling. Be supportive and listen attentively. Ask if there is anything they’re feeling anxious or sad about. Ask if they’re feeling especially tired or stressed. Often, people need a listening ear, and this is still true as we get older.

Ask a pharmacist. If your friend or family member takes medication and is showing signs of fatigue, ask a pharmacist if their medication could be the cause. Sometimes, certain medication combinations can cause low energy levels and fatigue. A geriatric pharmacist specializes in medication for people over 60. They might have information that can help.

Ask a doctor. Bring your concerns to your loved one’s doctor. They know their medical history and the medications they’re on and can recommend tests and specialists to determine the problem.

Get an evaluation. Bring your loved one to a geriatric psychiatrist. They’re trained to recognize and treat age-related mental illness.