Philadelphia Mental Health and Aging Resource Guide

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Common Mental Health Problems

What are some of the common mental health problems of older adults?

The United States Surgeon General reports that while most older adults enjoy good mental health, nearly 20% of those 55 and older experience mental disorders that are not part of normal aging. The following are some of the most common disorders.


Depression is a disorder characterized by feelings of sadness and despair and ranging in severity from mild to life threatening. When a depressed or irritated mood goes beyond a temporary state and interferes with daily living for more than two weeks, it becomes a medical illness that needs to be treated.

Signs of depression in older adults include a persistent anxious or "empty" mood; sleeping too much or too little; reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain; loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, including sex; irritability; restlessness; persistent physical symptoms that don't respond to treatment, such as chronic pain or digestive disorders; difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions; fatigue or loss of energy; feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless; thoughts of death or suicide.


Suicide is the taking of one's own life. Older adults have the highest suicide rate in the country. About 17 older adults take their lives every day. Untreated depression can lead to suicide. One of the unique features of suicide in older adults is that they usually do not commit suicide impulsively. Another is that their attempts are often disguised, which leads to underreporting. There are many that silently give up on life and stop taking care of themselves.

Signs of potential suicide in older adults include talking a lot about suicide and the uselessness of living, having well-defined plans for suicide, a history of alcohol abuse and being depressed.


Dementia is a loss of mental abilities caused by the death or degeneration of brain cells that is not part of normal aging. Involves deterioration of certain functions: amnesia, aproxia - impairment of learned movements, agnosia - failure to recognize what is seen, and aphasia - inability to talk. The majority of dementia victims are older. The likelihood of developing dementia increases with age.

Signs of dementia in older adults include gradual memory loss, decline in the ability to perform routine tasks, disorientation, loss of language skills, impairment of judgment, and personality changes.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders is an inability to cope with normal fears and worries that interferes with daily living. It can take the form of panic attacks, physical symptoms, phobias, or general anxiety about living. It involves unrealistic or excessive anxiety about life circumstances.

Signs of anxiety disorders include restlessness, muscle tension, intense feelings of stress, obsessive-compulsive behavior. Sometimes physical signs may be confused with the signs of a heart attack, stroke or other medical emergencies.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is the use of alcohol to such an extent that it causes physical or mental harm. It often involves needing to take more to have the same effect and having withdrawal symptoms when the person stops consuming. One third of older adult alcoholics develop the disease after age 45. Older adults are more affected by less alcohol because of slower metabolism and the use of medications.

Signs of alcohol abuse include incontinence, sleep problems, poor self-care, malnutrition and a withdrawal from activities.

Misuse of Medications

Misuse of medications is taking prescribed medications in the incorrect amount or dosage, or otherwise contrary to the doctor's order.

Signs of misuse of medication include falls, delirium, confusion, urinary incontinence, insomnia, weakness or lethargy, loss of appetite, changes in speech and depression.

Page updated: February 9, 2006.
Mental Health/Aging Advocacy Project | a project of the Mental Health Association of SE PA | 1211 Chestnut Street | Philadelphia, PA 19107 | 215-751-1800 |
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