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Mental Health and Older Adults

Silver Hill Hospital

As people age many experience medical conditions that cause physical impairment, but mental health is often overlooked in the older population. It is estimated that about 20% of adults over the age of 55 have a mental disorder, commonly anxiety and depression, which often occur together, but few seek treatment . Of those who do get treatment, only 3% see a mental health professional . Instead they rely on their primary care physician.

A common misconception is that depression is a normal part of the aging process. Many older adults believe that depression is something they just have to accept and is not a real problem . However, untreated depression and anxiety can cause unnecessary suffering, impair one’s ability to function day to day, decrease the ability to fight infection and disease and increase the risk of cognitive decline. That’s why prompt and proper treatment is crucial. Symptoms of depression can present differently in an older person. Signs to watch for in your loved one include:

• New memory problems
• Confusion
• Social withdrawal
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Vague complaints of pain
• Inability to sleep
• Irritability
• Delusions (fixed false beliefs)
• Hallucinations


Anxiety can causes emotional and physical responses because the body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Some symptoms include:

• Constant worrying and feelings of dread
• Restlessness
• Anticipating the worst
• Trouble concentrating
• Feeling tense
• Pounding heart
• Sweating
• Upset stomach
• Headaches
• Shortness of breath
• Insomnia


If depression and/or anxiety are suspected, a physical exam should be done first to rule out any underlying physical conditions. If the exam doesn’t reveal any physical problems, an evaluation by a qualified mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker) is the next step. If the evaluation leads to a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, the clinician will determine the appropriate course of treatment based on the severity of symptoms. Treatment typically includes behavioral therapy, medication or a combination of both.

It is important to remember that depression and anxiety are real medical conditions just like heart disease or diabetes. With proper treatment, symptoms can be managed and quality of life can improve.


  • “Mental and behavioral health and older Americans.” American Psychological Association, (AOA, 2001).
  • “Mental and behavioral health and older Americans.” American Psychological Association, (Lebowitz et al., 1997)
  • National Mental Health Association, “American Attitudes about Clinical Depression and its Treatment,” (March 27, 1996).