Mental health and later life

You may have seen the research by the University of Warwick that has suggested that the older a person gets, the more contented they become.

The study focused on lifestyle and health patterns in 10,000 people and found that participants reported better mental wellbeing as they got older, despite a decrease in their physical quality of life. Interestingly, this is also in line with previous research on the subject.

But whilst it’s clearly good news that a study has shown mental wellbeing to improve with age, strong evidence suggests that for around a quarter of people over the age of 65, their mental health not only declines but gets significantly worse.

Evidence shows that up to 25% of people over the age of 65 have symptoms of depression that are severe enough to need treatment. Despite this, our Grouchy Old Men? project highlights that most older people with depression are never diagnosed and do not receive any treatment for their condition, even if they have seen their GP. Sometimes this is because they may present to their GPs with a physical ailment when the underlying issue could actually be a mental health related. Further to this, dementia affects 5% of people over the age of 65 and 20% of those over 80. At present, about 700,000 people in the UK have dementia (1.2% of the population) at any one time and this figure is expected to significantly rise, hitting around one million by 2021. This evidence alone suggests that we should be cautious of research that points to a general increase in mental wellbeing as people get older.

There are, of course, a large number of contributing factors to take into account when discussing the links between old age and mental illness. The fact that a huge number of older people are living in social isolation means that the amount of informal mental health support available to them is significantly reduced. This social isolation brings with it the increasing possibility of loneliness: our Lonely Society report indicates that while this is not an inevitable part of old age, it is much more likely to affect older people because of bereavement, ill health, and poverty. And also, times are changing, so a growing number of factors can contribute to people experiencing loneliness in later life, for example, people now live longer, tend to have smaller families, and grandchildren don’t necessarily live nearby. These all have an impact on the way people’s experiences of later life. The Mental Health Foundation is also a member of the Campaign to End Loneliness in Later Life.

It is reassuring news that the majority of people in later life continue to experience good mental health and well being. However, the fact that this research made headlines for making a positive association between good health and older age may confirm the common belief that many people perceive mental health problems to be part-and-parcel of getting older. This doesn't have to be the case.

My own work at the Foundation looks to improve the mental health of all people in later life, whether they are living with a mental illness or not. With this in mind, you can read our booklet How to Look After Your Mental Health in Later Life for more information.