Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that manifests with extreme mood swings. These mood swings range from mania (extreme elation) to depression. Bipolar often appears in a person’s teens and early 20s, but there is now increasing attention to those diagnosed later in life. Older adults who discover they are bipolar may have been misdiagnosed throughout their lives or may be just exhibiting initial symptoms of the condition. There is an ongoing effort to understand bipolar disorder in later life and learn how to treat it.

Defining Bipolar Disorder

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

Researchers are not 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.

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

  • medication
  • psychotherapy
  • education
  • family support

Receiving an early diagnosis of bipolar disorder can make treatment and management easier. Unfortunately, many people are misdiagnosed and do not realize they have bipolar disorder until later in life. This delays treatment. It may also result in inappropriate treatments. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar can worsen if not treated. Furthermore, a person can experience more severe and frequent manic and depressive episodes with time.

Diagnosing and Treating 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 the National Institute of Mental Health. Numerous studies have debunked the myth that bipolar only affects young people. In recent years, there has been increased research on late-onset bipolar disorder.

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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.

The good news is that, with the growing body of research, treatment options for late-onset bipolar disorder have expanded. While there is growing evidence that medications can treat late-onset bipolar disorder, though, a study published in Psychiatry (Edgmont), cautions that more studies are needed before there are clear treatment strategies.

Typical medications to treat bipolar disorder include:

  • mood stabilizers
  • antipsychotics
  • antidepressants
  • antidepressant-antipsychotics
  • anti-anxiety medications

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

Contacting Your Doctor

If you are concerned that you or a loved one has bipolar disorder, it is important to talk to your doctor. People of all ages can suffer from 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:

  • confusion, disorientation
  • easy distractibility
  • loss of the need for sleep
  • irritability

Signs of a depressed episode can include:

  • a loss of interest in activities one once enjoyed
  • feeling overly tired
  • having difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • changing habits
  • thinking of or attempting suicide