Changes in a person’s lifestyle, level of independence, and physical health can affect an older adult’s mental wellness. There are a few common senior mental health issues that older adults face as a result of these changes and other risk factors. Here, we explain some common senior mental health issues so individuals can spot potential concerns in themselves or their loved ones and seek help.

An older adult sits outside a cafe on a city sidewalk. He looks out into the distance.

What are some common senior mental health issues?

Dementia and depression are two mental and neurological illnesses that affect around 5 to 7% of the world’s population of people aged 60 and older, making them the most common in this age group. Anxiety as a mental illness affects 3.8% of the older population, and drug abuse impacts almost 1% of older adults. 

Depression in older adults

Depression is one of the most common senior mental health issues. Sometimes, symptoms of depression are overlooked and not treated because they happen at the same time as other issues, or they may be confused with other behaviors associated with the aging process.

Depression leads to long-lasting changes in mood or a loss of interest in things that used to be fun. Some signs of depression include:

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty in sleeping or sleeping excessively
  • Lack of interest in any activities 
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or empty

Anxiety in older adults

Anxiety is another common senior mental health issue. As people get older, their lives may often change in a short period. It’s natural to worry in these situations — but if the worry is getting in the way of daily life, one may be experiencing issues with anxiety and should seek the help of a mental health professional.

In many cases, anxiety leads to health problems like a rapid heartbeat, feeling dizzy, muscle tension, or trouble digesting food. Because older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than emotional ones, some health problems without apparent cause can indicate anxiety. Some symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Poor sleep
  • Irritability
  • Excessive worrying 
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Excessive sweating

Substance abuse disorders in older adults

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, approximately 1 million older adults in the United States live with a substance abuse disorder. Prescription medicines, opioid pain medications, marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol are among the most commonly abused substances. Substance abuse disorder is a mental disorder that affects a person’s behavior as the person develops a psychological or physical dependency on a substance. 

Abusing drugs or alcohol may be more dangerous for older adults because the body metabolizes the substances more slowly with age. The following are some of the symptoms of drug abuse in older people:

  • Craving for alcohol and/or drugs
  • Wanting to stop the drug abuse but unable to do so 
  • Requiring more substance to achieve the same level of pleasure

Substance abuse disorders may also co-occur with other mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. There is a risk for a bi-directional relationship between the two, as a person with an existing mental health issue may turn to substances to cope with their illness. Conversely, substance abuse can affect the body and promote depressive or anxious behaviors.

Schizophrenia in older adults

Schizophrenia is a mental illness in which people have a distorted view of reality. Patients complain about seeing things that do not exist or hearing voices asking them to do certain things. Schizophrenia in older people, especially those with dementia, can be disabling.

People aged 55 and up will soon make up 25% or more of the world’s total population of people with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia in older adults also significantly affects health care costs, with an estimated higher cost per person than most other medical and mental illnesses. Symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • Hallucinations (hearing voices or seeing things that are not there)
  • Delusions (having beliefs that are not based in reality)
  • Agitation
  • Disorganized speech and thinking
  • Extremely disorganized or abnormal behavior
  • No emotional response
  • Loss of interest in social interactions

The bottom line about common senior mental health issues

Mental illness is not a natural part of aging. All seniors have the right to services and care that help their mental health and meet their needs if they have a mental illness. Peer support networks can help prevent age-onset mental disorders by allowing people to focus on their strengths, reach their full potential, and improve their physical health.