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Older Adults Give Their Mental Health High Marks, Polls Find

Many have avoided serious anxiety and depression during the pandemic

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En español | In many ways COVID-19 has been particularly hard on older adults, who are more vulnerable to complications from the virus. But when it comes to their mental health, the older they are, the better they’ve felt, according to recent surveys.

One is a newly released University of Michigan poll, in which 2 in 3 adults ages 50-80 (65 percent) rated their mental health as excellent or very good, 27 percent as good, and 8 percent as fair or poor.

Only 18 percent of the approximately 2,000 older adults surveyed in the January online poll, supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center, said their overall mental health had gotten worse since the pandemic began.

More than 80 percent said their mental health is as good as, or better than, it was 20 years ago. (For more on older adults’ resilience, see here.)

“I really think resiliency, life experience, the ability to put things in perspective can really help … [people] shoulder some of these stressors a little bit better,” says Lauren Gerlach, a geriatric psychiatrist at Michigan Medicine who worked with the poll team. 


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Other surveys have found that teens and young adults have suffered the worst mental health effects from the pandemic: Almost half — 47 percent — of adults ages 18 to 29 reported symptoms of anxiety in the previous seven days, for instance, in a February Household Pulse Survey by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau. About 25 percent of people in their 60s did so.

And a November 2020 AARP national phone survey of about 1,500 adults regarding their health and access to care found that the percentage of respondents reporting high stress decreased with increasing age: Those in their 40s were more likely (38 percent) to be highly stressed than those in their 50s (33 percent) or 60s (18 percent). Only 13 percent of those over 70 reported high stress levels.

More findings from the University of Michigan’s mental health poll:

  • Women were more likely than men to report that their mental health was worse. The AARP phone survey also found that women were more likely (30 percent) than men (24 percent) to report high stress levels. It could be that women are more comfortable reporting mental health symptoms, Gerlach notes, but they also may have additional stressors — maybe “caregiving-related stressors, or other things that might be contributing to worse overall mental health symptoms.”

  • About a third (29 percent) of people 50-80 said they would be reluctant to seek help from a mental health professional in the future. While Gerlach thinks this generation of older Americans is far more open to seeking mental health care than previous generations were, this still concerns her. “I really think that highlights a big need to make sure that we’re continuing to reduce the stigma around seeking care,” she says, “as well as being able to screen and offer treatment services in settings that older adults find most comfortable — for instance, in primary care offices.”

  • Older adults who said their physical health is fair or poor were most likely (24 percent) to report worse mental health.

  • Fewer people reported feeling isolated (46 percent) now than the 56 percent of people who did so in a similar poll taken in spring 2020 — though that’s up from 28 percent before the pandemic.

  • Nearly a third (29 percent) reported having made a lifestyle change, such as incorporating exercise or meditation into their routines, to improve their mental health since the pandemic began. Gerlach says some key things to consider include “increasing physical exercise — we know what’s good for our heart is also good for our brain — getting outside, getting some fresh air, natural light, and maintaining social connections.”

Finding Help

The Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry developed a mental health guide for older adults during the pandemic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers information on pandemic-related stress and coping strategies for all adults and children.

Resources for finding a therapist include Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist, the APA’s Psychologist Locator, and ZenCare (a therapist database). 

If you or someone you care about is considering suicide, call the free 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255), or text the word “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 to speak with someone who can offer confidential support and resources. Find more information at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also has a help line (the Treatment Referral Routing Service) offering information on support groups, treatment options and other assistance: 800-662-HELP (4357).

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.

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