Although some irritability and moodiness are to be expected as people face the aches, pains and reduced mobility that come with growing older, when the emotions, thoughts and actions of an individual become extreme, they may signal the onset of bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder usually appears first in young adulthood (most commonly between the ages of 15 and 24), but in rare instances it can strike later in life, even in old age.
Researchers have much to learn about how older people experience bipolar disorder, and how best to diagnose and treat this portion of the population. Information contained in this section is based on “Living with Depression and Anxiety Alert: Bipolar Disorder and Older Adults,” part of Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Alerts, first posted November 21, 2006; reviewed March, 2010.
How common is bipolar disorder in older adults?
Although few comprehensive studies are available, research conducted in conjunction with the Veteran’s Administration (VA) and other organizations has yielded the following clues about how bipolar disorder impacts the elderly:
- In one large study of people treated at VA hospitals, 25% of patients with bipolar disorder were age 60 or older.
- Within this group, about 6% had newly-diagnosed disease (versus a recurrence of previously-diagnosed bipolar disorder).
- In a separate study conducted in a primary clinic setting, 41% of individuals aged 18-70 who screened positive for bipolar disorder indicated that they first experienced symptoms on or after age 40.
Studies indicate that men and women are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder as adults. But new research shows that women may be more than twice as likely as men to develop the illness late in life.
How is bipolar disorder diagnosed in older adults?
Healthcare professionals have a special challenge when it comes to identifying bipolar disorder in seniors. Many conditions impacting people later in life, such as depression, dementia, stroke or other neurological conditions, share symptoms with bipolar disorder. Side effects of certain medications can also mimic bipolar disorder’s symptoms. Some research also suggests that when bipolar disorder strikes later in life, its symptoms may be less severe. As a result, doctors may fail to diagnose the disease.