Mental health disorders are fairly common in older adults. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 20% of people age 55 years or older report some type of mental health issue such as anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, or other condition such as bipolar disorder.[1] Although depression is the most prevalent mental health problem among older adults, it is often undiagnosed and untreated. One reason is that older people suffering from depression may complain about physical symptoms, but not psychiatric symptoms.

In fact, many medical problems can trigger depression, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, Parkinson’s disease, and poor control of diabetes. Heart disease, thyroid problems, and respiratory disease can cause symptoms of anxiety. Medication interactions may result in confusion and memory impairment. A comprehensive medical evaluation that addresses the older adult’s physical status, mental health, and social environment is essential to identify and effectively treat a primary or underlying mental health disorder.

Besides physical illness and medication interactions, other risk factors for mental health disorders later in life include the following:

  • Widowhood and loneliness
  • Social isolation
  • Heavy alcohol or substance use
  • Grief
  • Major life changes such as moving into assisted living or a facility
  • Physical disability
  • Chronic pain
  • Poor diet and malnutrition
  • Previous mental health issues or family history

Mental health disorders are treatable, and friends, family members, and trusted healthcare professionals can be important influences to help an aging person get the appropriate help and services they need. If an older adult experiences one or more of the following symptoms, consider a comprehensive assessment:

  • Changes in sleep: sleeping too much or too little, or early awakening
  • Changes in appetite; changes in weight
  • Withdrawing from people and activities
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Feeling numb or frequently sad and hopeless
  • Having trouble performing everyday tasks
  • Feeling unusually confused, angry, upset, agitated, worried or scared
  • Experiencing severe mood swings
  • Having persistent thoughts or compulsions
  • Hearing voices
  • Having thoughts of harming oneself or others


For more information on mental health treatment resources, visit:

National Institute of Mental Health

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)