senior man in wheelchair looking out window

A new study links mental illness in older adults to unmet social needs, including inadequate housing and food insecurity.

The study published in JAMA Network included 56,000 Medicare Advantage enrollees with and without diagnosed mental illnesses. Among the cohort,  just under 39% had at least one diagnosed mental illness, 54% had a health-related social need and a little more than a quarter had both in the past year. The association of mental illness with the presence of health-related social needs was more pronounced among those with both serious and persistent mental illness.

“The need to address mental health is serious in the U.S., where 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness each year and 11.2 million adults live with a serious mental illness,” study co-author Matthew Ruble, MD, chief medical officer for Discovery Behavioral Health, said in a statement. “These findings suggest that basic social needs, such as safe housing and food security, remain challenging in one of the most vulnerable populations.” 

Health-related social needs addressed in the study included financial strain, food insecurity, housing instability, severe loneliness, transportation problems and utility affordability. Those with mental illness have higher morbidity and mortality than the general population. Those with serious mental illness also die a decade earlier. These premature deaths often reflect higher rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. 

“Increasing mental illness–related deaths nationwide suggest that the number of individuals in the U.S. concurrently dealing with social and mental problems has increased — and likely will continue to increase — unless new strategies are implemented to simultaneously address social needs, physical health, and mental health,” Ruble said. 

Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to behavioral health problems, including depression and anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression is also known to exacerbate a number of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.