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6 Things to Know About Mental Illness in Older Adults

Would you know if a loved one was struggling with their mental health? Here are some warning signs to look for, and ways to help.

elderly man sitting at home

The term “mental illness” can sound like an exaggeration, but depression, grief, and anxiety are a big deal. Sadness or worry can affect us at any time of life, but as we get older some of us face special challenges — and low moods can persist and become hard to recover from. It’s important for older adults and those who care for them to pay attention to the warning signs of serious depression or chronic anxiety, and to know when to take action.

Causes of Anxiety & Depression

Aging can bring about a natural diminishment in mental or physical ability, something that can be tough to accept. More importantly, as friends and loved ones begin to pass away, grief and loss can contribute to mental distress.

Medical bills, budgeting, and financial concerns can also cause anxiety–for older adults as well as their family members. Older adults can also face issues dealing with change. Even if it’s for the best, moving an aging loved one to an assisted care facility can be hard on their mental health simply because the change is so disorienting.

Finally, lack of social interaction can cause loneliness and an accompanying decline in overall mental health. Meals on Wheels, senior centers, and visits from loved ones are fantastic ways to provide aging adults with the social interactions we all need forhealthy aging.

Warning Signs

Depression is extremely common among the elderly, as millions and millions of older adults suffer from this late-life affliction. Yet, a relative few receive appropriate treatment for depression. Aging adults, as well as theircaregivers, need to be aware of red flags, including (but not limited to) mood swings, change in diet, hopelessness, substance abuse, excessive sleep or lack of sleep, rage, extreme anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness, and suicidal thoughts. If we feel or notice any of these things, we need to know it is OK to let someone know and to take these signs seriously.

Ensure healthy aging through mental wellness by zeroing in on the symptoms of late-life depression.


Sleep is often a key indicator of whether or not an aging adult is suffering from mental illness. Insomnia is a disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to fall and remain asleep. This disorder is particularly common in seniors with a decline in mental and brain health. Treating insomnia is more challenging with older adults because medications used on younger people can cause additional health risks—like increased chance of fall and general disorientation—when prescribed for the elderly.

Doctors often opt for hormone-melatonin treatments over the aforementioned medications. If you expect that your senior loved one is suffering from poor sleep, make an appointment with their doctor to discuss all the healthy options available to help boost sleep quality.

Difficulty in Diagnosis

Diagnosing mental illness in the elderly is much more challenging than it is for younger age groups. This is caused by the fact that the symptoms of poor mental health often overlap with those of the other illnesses the aging adult may be facing.

To further complicate the issue, seniors are often prescribed multiple medications, some of which possess side effects that affect the aging adult’s mood. Depression itself can even be listed as a side effect. Doctors will try to change up these prescriptions in order to put a stop to potential depression-causing medications, so it’s important to track and monitor the senior’s reactions to various medications and keep their doctor informed.

Physical Consequences of Poor Mental Health

The effects of mental illness in the elderly can threaten a person’s physical health in three primary ways. First, depression increases the risk of cardiac issues. Seniors who lack mental wellness are more likely to suffer heart attacks. Furthermore, not only does poor mental health put the senior at risk for more physical ailments, it also increases the likelihood of death when those physical illnesses strike. The third and final way depression can affect an aging adult physically is that it exacerbates existing illnesses. All these are reasons why mental illness in the elderly must be treated as seriously as physical illness.


There are numerous effective ways to help promote healthy aging by increasing long-term brain and mental health in older adults. Receiving counseling from a therapist is a good step to take if a loved one is willing and able to speak about their depression or mental health fluctuations.

Forms of brain stimulation or medications such as antidepressants are other common options. As always, support from friends and family goes a long way to increase the overall well-being of aging adults.

Declining mental health is a struggle that many of us will face as we age, but with the proper care, support, and guidance, anyone can begin making great strides toward reclaiming contentment and happiness.