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Half of adults aged 55 and over have experienced common mental health problems, says Age UK

Published on 06 October 2017 10:30 AM

The charity is joining forces with NHS England to encourage older people to seek help and is calling on GPs to spot the warning signs.

Nearly half of adults (7.7million) aged 55+ say they have experienced depression and around the same number (7.3 million) have suffered with anxiety, according to new YouGov research for the charity Age UK - revealing the scale of the mental health challenge facing older people in the UK today.

The death of loved ones (36%) ill health of themselves (24%) and financial worries (27%) are the most common triggers for mental health problems, yet worryingly more than a third (35%) say they did not know where to go for help and support. This comes as NHS England has published new guidance - ‘Mental health in older people' - to help GPs spot the tell-tale signs of anxiety and depression, and identify a range of mental health problems including those which specifically affect older people.

One in 5 (21%) of the people who reported suffering from anxiety or depression said that their symptoms had in fact worsened as they'd got older.

Research indicates feelings of loneliness and isolation could play a major role in the problems older people are facing. Nearly three-quarters of older people (72%) think that having more opportunities to connect with other people (e.g. joining local activity groups) would be the best way to help people who are experiencing mental health problems.

As well as having opportunities to connect with other people, more than a third (35%) felt that talking therapy such as counselling would best help older people with anxiety and depression. Research has found older people respond extremely well to talking therapies; the recovery rates for patients aged over 65 years of age who completed a course of talking therapy through the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies programme (IAPT) were shown to be positive.

One in 4 older people (25%) said they felt it was more difficult for older people to discuss mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, compared to younger people. The top reasons given were:

  • When older people were growing up, society didn't recognise depression or anxiety as a health condition
  • Depression and anxiety used to be seen as a weakness, so it's not something the older generation are comfortable discussing
  • The older generation were taught to approach life with a 'stiff upper lip'

Age UK and NHS England are hoping to encourage older people to seek help and are calling on GPs to spot the warning signs.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK Director said:

'In recent years there's been nothing short of a cultural revolution in our willingness to be open about mental ill health, which is an essential pre-condition to people getting help, but it's one that may well have left many older people behind. They grew up in an era when there was a real stigma associated with mental illness so for many these attitudes are deeply engrained and still driving their behaviour today.

'A further barrier to seeking support is that there is a widespread lack of awareness about effective treatments, beyond ‘taking pills', which many older people feel they do quite enough of already. And finally, it is understandable if a lot of older people, having seen so much and having experienced so many ups and downs through life, take the view that feeling depressed or anxious is just something they have to put up with, not illnesses that are just as deserving of a proper medical response as a physical problem like a chest infection or a leg ulcer. For some they will indeed be recurrent problems that they have long since given up any hope of defeating.'

Alistair Burns, National Clinical Director for Dementia, NHS England, said:

'This is further evidence to show why the NHS is putting mental health front and centre of patient care. As part of what has been independently described as ‘the world's most ambitious effort to treat depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses', we are helping doctors to recognise and respond to mental ill-health in later life.

'Depression and anxiety affect nearly eight million people over 55, but can often go unnoticed and untreated. Older people mustn't miss out on help and treatment because of a ‘stiff upper lip' approach to dealing with problems, or because they aren't offered or don't know where to go for help. GPs are the first port of call for many older people, so we are equipping doctors and their teams to better spot and tackle mental ill health in older adults.'

Age UK runs a range of services to help support older people with mental health problems from Men in Sheds clubs to dedicated counselling services. There is also a free guide called Your Mind Matters focusing on improving mental wellbeing which is available on the Age UK website and via the Advice Line on 0800 169 6565.


Media contact:

Liz Fairweather or Lauren Connors at Age UK; James Mole or Nick Paget at NHS England.

Tel: Age UK - 020 3033 1718;


Out of hours: Age UK - 07071 243 243; NHS England - 07768 901 293.

Notes to editors

  • All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,707 UK adults aged 55+. Of which 888 experienced symptoms of depression and/ or anxiety. Fieldwork was undertaken between 6th - 8th September 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
  • Total spending by Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) on mental health services in 2016/17 rose by 6.3 per cent to £9.7billion.
  • 89.6% of people entering treatment for common mental health problems waited less than six weeks, and 99.1% waited less than 18 weeks - both exceeding national access standards. The recovery rate was 51.1 per cent, also exceeding the national standard, for a fifth month in a row.
  • Over one million extra people are set to benefit from community talking therapies this year.

Age UK

We work with our national partners, Age Scotland, Age Cymru and Age NI and our local Age UK partners in England (together the Age UK Family). We also work internationally for people in later life as a member of the DEC and with our sister charity Help Age International.

Age UK believes that everyone should have the opportunity to make the most of later life, whatever their circumstances. We provide free information, advice and support to over six million people; commercial products and services to over one million customers; and research and campaign on the issues that matter to people in later life. Our work focuses on five key areas: money matters, health and wellbeing, home and care, work and training and leisure and lifestyle.

Age UK is a charitable company limited by guarantee and registered in England (registered charity number 1128267 and company number 6825798). Age Concern England and Help the Aged (both registered charities), and their trading and other associated companies merged on the 1st April 2009. Together they have formed the Age UK Group ("we"). Charitable services are offered through Age UK and commercial products are offered by the Charity's trading companies, which donate their net profits to Age UK (the Charity).

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Last updated: Oct 06 2017

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