Can I Get Bipolar Disorder Later in Life?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on November 28, 2017Written by Natalie Silver

Overview

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that manifests with extreme mood swings. These mood swings range from mania, or extreme elation, to depression. Bipolar often appears in a person’s teens and early 20s, but there’s now increasing attention to those diagnosed later in life.

Older adults who discover they’re bipolar may have been misdiagnosed throughout their lives or may be just exhibiting initial symptoms of the condition. There’s an ongoing effort to understand bipolar disorder in later life and learn how to treat it.

Defining bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder affects your mental state. It can cause episodes of mania and depression. These episodes can have a negative impact on all aspects of your life. Someone with bipolar disorder can be in a state of extreme joy or extreme despair. These episodes can alter your ability to function. This, in turn, can make it difficult to sustain healthy relationships, keep jobs, and live a stable life.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes bipolar disorder or why it only affects some people. Genetics, brain functioning, and environment are factors that likely contribute to the disorder.

Importance of early diagnosis

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, but the symptoms can be treated. With effective treatment, those with bipolar disorder can live a full life. Some common treatment methods include:

Receiving an early diagnosis of bipolar disorder can make treatment and management easier. Nevertheless, many people are misdiagnosed and don’t realize they have bipolar disorder until later in life. This delays treatment. It may also result in inappropriate treatments. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), bipolar can worsen if not treated. Furthermore, a person can experience more severe and frequent manic and depressive episodes with time.

Diagnosing bipolar disorder in older adults

It was once believed that bipolar disorder “burns out” over the course of one’s life. This belief was likely caused by the prevalence of bipolar diagnoses in teens and young adults. More than half of bipolar cases begin before age 25, according to NAMI.

Numerous studies have debunked the myth that bipolar only affects young people. In recent years, there’s been increased research on late onset bipolar disorder (LOBD). A 2015 report stated that nearly 25 percent of people with bipolar disorder are at least 60 years old.

Most research considers bipolar disorder that begins at 50 years old or later to be LOBD. Between 5 and 10 percent of people with bipolar disorder will be at least 50 when they first show symptoms of mania or hypomania.

It can be difficult to correctly diagnose bipolar disorder symptoms in older adults. The symptoms are often confused with other conditions. Symptoms such as psychosis, sleep disturbance, and aggressiveness can be confused with dementia or depressive disorder, according to an article in Primary Psychiatry. The article also suggests that late onset manic episodes can be more closely associated with stroke, dementia, or hyperthyroidism.

Treating bipolar disorder in older adults

Treatment options for LOBD have expanded with the growing body of research. While there’s growing evidence that medications can treat LOBD, a study from 2010 cautions that more studies are needed before there are clear treatment strategies.

Typical medications to treat bipolar disorder include:

A doctor will often prescribe a combination of these medications in conjunction with psychotherapy and other supportive methods.

Contacting your doctor

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one has bipolar disorder, it’s important to talk to your doctor. People of all ages can have bipolar disorder. Don’t brush off severe changes in mood as a sign of aging.

Someone with late onset bipolar could be experiencing a manic episode with symptoms such as:

Signs of a depressive episode can include:

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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