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New Age UK research uncovers deeply troubling levels of mental ill-health among people in their fifties and over

Published on 14 March 2024 09:58 AM

Almost half of people in their fifties said they were not sleeping well over the last year, with two in five reporting being more anxious and almost one in five saying they were finding it harder to look after themselves, compared to a year ago.[i]

“My mental health has declined. The unpredictability of my condition and its rapid progression is frightening…..I often feel as though I have been buried alive.”

“I despair because there’s no one to turn to regarding my mental health. My GP was amazing, as were Talking Therapies, but these are hard to come by now.”

“Money worries now and worrying they will not improve and likely get worse. Dread another winter without heat and hot water and living on salad.”

“Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer I can't sleep as I get worried if I close my eyes, I might not wake up so my sleeping habits have got worse.”

A new report from the charity Age UK, ‘I just feel like no one cares, paints a really worrying picture of the mental health challenges facing many members of our older population (people aged 50 plus).

For the first time in this series of regular reports, Age UK’s data collection included people aged over 50, rather than focusing solely on those aged 60 plus. The report helps to identify a wide range of factors that are impacting the wellbeing of older people and highlights how mental health challenges for specific sub-groups such as women, people with long term health conditions, carers and those living in deprived areas, are a lot more pronounced than for others.

Another report published last week by the Centre for Mental Health - commissioned by Age UK – showed how older people are being left behind by inadequate mental health services, ageism and the absence of any national strategic approach for supporting them. This new Age UK report, ‘I Just Feel Like No One Cares’, reinforces the urgent need to take this issue seriously as our population ages and, as the report highlights, due to the significant, often disregarded needs of those in their fifties who are still very much of working age but approaching their later lives.

Nationally representative polling[ii] carried out for Age UK in September 2023 found:

The entire 50 plus population

  • Almost a third (31%) said that their physical health had got worse over the previous 12 months, with (16%) finding it harder to look after themselves.
  • More than two in five (45%) said they had less energy; more than one in three (35%) said they couldn’t walk so far; and almost one in three (32%) said they were in more physical pain.
  • Almost two in five (39%) people aged 50 and over reported not sleeping well, and more than a third (34% - 8.7 million) told us that they felt less motivated to do things that they enjoy.
  • Almost half (48%) of unpaid carers aged 50 and over had felt anxious, more than a third (34%) had felt overwhelmed, and more than a fifth (21%) had felt lonely because of the care or support they provide.
  • One in eight (13%) people aged 50 and over were rarely or never having social contact with others in person, over the phone, or online.

Those aged 50-59

  • Many people in their fifties reported significant challenges to their mental health and independence with over four in ten (42%) reporting feeling more anxious over the previous 12 months, higher than other age groups polled.
  • Nearly half (46%) of those aged 50-59 years reported not sleeping well over the last 12 months, and over four in ten (41%) told us that they felt less motivated to do things that they enjoy, compared to a year ago.
  • Over a third (34%) of those aged 50-59 years reported finding it harder to remember things and over a quarter (26%) were finding it harder to process new information.

Those who told us about their mental ill-health often cited heart-breaking reasons for its decline, including a deterioration in physical health and the stress of isolation and loneliness.[iii] They also talked about the anxiety of trying to manage financial pressures, and not being able to access their GP easily or get mental health support such as talking therapies. In addition, some were rarely or never leaving their homes for social activities.

People with caring responsibilities told us how the pressure of caring was having a huge effect on their mental health due to the stress they were under as a result; the additional burden of carrying so much responsibility for someone they loved, and the impact on them of a lack of external support from a pressurised social care system.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK Charity Director, said: “It’s sobering to see how common mental ill-health and an absence of wellbeing is among our older population. Our research is a reminder of the big gap that exists at the moment between the need for mental health support of all kinds, including Talking Therapies, and its availability. We have to do better by older people, and it’s not just about improving the NHS’s mental health offer to them, crucial though that is, it’s also about investing in the local community so that more low-level support is available from organisations like our local Age UKs to help older people to socialise, keep active and sustain their independence and resilience.

“The fact that our research found that people in their fifties are often struggling with their mental health too will be a surprise to many I think, and it’s an important wake up call for the NHS and our society. Across the UK there are some eight million people aged fifty something, but their needs are generally overlooked.  It is often simply assumed that they are universally happy, hale and hearty, but our research paints a rather different picture. It demonstrates how many of them are feeling battered and anxious, as long-term health conditions like diabetes and cardio-vascular disease emerge for them, but treatment and support are hard to get hold of; caring responsibilities for ageing parents or partners crystallise for the first time alongside responsibilities for their own children; and cost of living problems bring financial headaches for them and their families.

“Policy makers are deeply concerned about the unprecedented numbers of people who are not working in their fifties and early sixties and the dampening effect this is having on our economy. Our new research lifts the lid on some of the underlying reasons, which include mental as well as physical health problems, with the two often interlinked, and an inability to access help and support in a timely way. Factors like these make it much harder for these people who should be near or at their productive peak to carry on working and, for some, to cope more generally.

“The resounding message from our report is that contrary to the popular stereotype, many fifty-somethings are not okay; a weakened NHS – and equally brittle social care system for those who are carers - are hitting them hard; and both they as individuals and our economy are suffering as a result. For the sake of us all this has to change as quickly as possible. The challenge to Government in putting in place the resources and strategy for getting more mental and physical health help, more quickly, to those in their fifties who would benefit from it is clear. Until this happens policy makers’ efforts to boost the economy will be very severely hampered.”   


[i] Age UK Polling: Kantar Research Express conducted an online self completion survey between 7th September and 21st September 2023 amongst 2,621 adults in the UK aged 50+

[ii] Age UK Polling: Kantar Research Express conducted an online self completion survey between 7th September and 21st September 2023 amongst 2,621 adults in the UK aged 50+

[iii] Age UK SurveyMonkey online survey conducted between 7th September 2023 and 26th September 2023 circulated via social media and among Age UK’s supporters, gaining 17,088 respondents.

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Last updated: Mar 14 2024

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