More mental disorders among elderly than previously thought


The risk for mental disorders is thought to decline with age, but a new study suggests that is not true, raising concerns because of the greater effect depression, anxiety or substance dependence can have on health conditions for older people.

Nearly one quarter of participants in a large study conducted in six European countries and Israel reported they have a mental disorder, and a higher proportion reported they’d had a disorder within the previous year, according to a new studypublished in The British Journal of Psychology.

A 2013 study conducted by researchers in Germany suggested nearly one in ten older people in Western countries had dimensional depression, 16 percent had major lifetime depression and more than one in ten had lifetime alcohol use disorders.

While that and other previous studies have shown mental disorders affect the elderly, researchers at Alpen-Adria University in Austria suspected diagnostic methods for adults are less suitable for diagnosis of mental disorders in the elderly.

According to the researchers, older people struggle to remain attentive during traditional diagnostic tests and the questions may be too long or complicated, which makes their performance even worse.

For the new study, researchers in Spain, England, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Israel, as well as those in Austria, developed a new diagnostic method using a computer-based interview system with simplified questions and statements. The researchers then recruited 3,142 men and women between the ages of 65 and 84 to participate in mental health screening using the new interview tool.

The researchers report that one in two participants had experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives, one in three had one within the past year and one in four was currently diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Among those who’d experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, the most common were anxiety disorders, as reported by 17 percent of participants, and depressive disorders, which were experienced by 14 percent of participants.

The researchers say that finding “substantially higher” incidence of mental disorders suggests diagnostic methods need to be improved, but that greater awareness of the prevalence of mental disorders among the elderly is needed even more.

“We need better and more reliable methods to determine whether an older person is suffering from a mental disorder,” Sylke Andreas, a professor at Alpen Adria University’s Department of Psychology and lead researcher on the new study, said in a press release. “This goes hand in hand with the urgent need to establish a range of psychotherapeutic services for the elderly, which has been almost entirely absent to date.”