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Aging Adults & Mental Health

Aging Adults & Mental Health

About 20% of people age 55 and older experience some type of mental health concern.1 So why is it that we don’t talk more about mental health among the older population? This article will take a brief look at the state of mental health in aging America and hopefully spur more discussion surrounding the state of mental health among the older generations.

Through the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a state-administered survey sanctioned by the federal Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), data is collected annually on the mental health of older adults. The survey asks older adults to evaluate their life satisfaction, inclination towards mental health issues, and other topics regarding mental health. The BRFSS is a succinct and powerful tool in evaluating the mental health of aging adults. Here are the highlights from the BRFSS report, as compiled and reported in the CDC’s publication "The State of Mental Health and Aging in America":2

  • Older men (ages 85 and older) have the highest suicide rate of any age group.
  • Adequate social and emotional support is associated with a reduced risk of mental illness and mortality. This is a huge part of why it's so important to make sure seniors in your life know that you love and support them.
  • Life dissatisfaction among seniors (and among the general population) is associated with obesity and risky heath behaviors, such as smoking, physical inactivity, and heavy drinking. While these risky behaviors are detrimental to anyone’s health, their negative effects are especially risky for seniors, whose health is often already more precarious than that of the general population.

Now that we have a few of the basic facts down, let's take a closer look at some of the major mental health issues discussed in the CDC publication.

  • Frequent mental distress (FMD). FMD is defined by mental distress occurring for 14 or more days out of a 30-day period. While uncommon among older adults, FMD is still an issue among some of the older population and can interfere with major life activities (i.e. eating well, maintaining a household, working, or sustaining personal relationships) as well as physical health. Older adultswith FMD are more likely to engage in behaviors that can contribute to poor health, such as smoking, not getting enough exercise, or eating a poor nutritional diet.
  • Depression. Depression is the most prevalent mental health problem among older adults. It can lead to impairments in physical, mental, and social functioning, and often adversely affects the treatment of other chronic diseases. Depression is more than just a passing mood or “feeling down.” It is a serious, persistent mental condition in which one may experience extended sadness, withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, difficulty sleeping, physical discomforts, and feeling "slowed down." Risk factors for late-onset depression include widowhood, physical illness, low
    educational attainment (less than high school), impaired functionality, and heavy alcohol consumption. Although the rate of older adults with depressive symptoms tends to increase with age, depression is not a normal part of growing older. In fact, in 80% of cases, depression is a treatable condition. Unfortunately, depressive disorders are a widely under-recognized condition and often are left untreated (or undertreated) among older adults. However, depression is one of the most successfully treated illnesses. There are highly effective treatments for depression in late life, and most depressed older adults can improve dramatically from treatment.
  • Anxiety. Along with depression, anxiety is among the most prevalent mental health problems among older adults. Oftentimes, anxiety and depression go hand in hand—in fact, almost half of older adults who are diagnosed with depression also meet the criteria for anxiety. Late-life anxiety is just as common as anxiety in other age groups, though it is often misunderstood or underestimated because older adults focus more on physical complaints and are less likely to report psychiatric symptoms.

The report concludes that most older adults are satisfied with their life, feel that they have social and emotional support, and have good overall mental health. However, it is important to acknowledge the prevalence of mental health issues in the minority of the aging population and provide them with adequate recognition and treatment.

A large part of National Depression Screening Day is removing the stigmas attached to mental illnesses. Especially among the older generations, mental illnesses are often seen as "just feeling a bit off," or something that’s "all in your head." Consequently, many older adults who suffer from treatable mental illnesses may not recognize the fact that their depression is indeed depression—something that is completely manageable and not shameful to acknowledge and treat. Thus, a large part of the mental health in aging America movement is removing the social stigmas attached to mental illnesses and raising awareness for what they are and how real they can be in the lives of those suffering with them. Another large part of investing in geriatric mental health is turning to extended family and friend networks for support during trying times. Hopefully, through efforts like the National Depression Screening Day, we can learn a little more about the status of geriatric mental health--and how we can help.

Additional Resources

This article has only scratched the surface of mental health in the older generations. For more information and further resources, see these sites:



  1. American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry (2008). Geriatrics and mental health—the facts.
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