(iStock)

Women in every age group in the United States were more likely than men to have serious mental health problems, according to federal health statistics released Thursday.

The report from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also found that more than one-fourth of people age 65 or older who are afflicted with these mental health problems have difficulty feeding, bathing and dressing themselves.

People with serious psychological distress are also at greater risk for certain medical conditions: four times as likely to have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) as men and women without mental health problem and twice as likely to have heart disease or diabetes.

Although it's been known that women generally have higher rates of depression than men, and that mental health problems are associated with higher rates of disease and disabilities, researchers said it was surprising to see the large percentage of people with mental health problems who have difficulty with basic activities of daily living, such as feeding, bathing and dressing.

People age 65 or older with mental health problems were almost five times as likely to have trouble with these daily living activities as their counterparts without serious psychological distress. All of the individuals were living in their homes, not in nursing homes or other institutions.


2009-2013: Percentage of adults aged 18 and over with limitations in activities of daily living, serious psychological distress. (CDC/NCHS/National Health Interview Survey)

"That was the chart that blew me away," said Laura Pratt, an epidemiologist and one of the authors. Dealing with either mental health issues or disabilities alone was hard enough. To have them both at the same time, she said, would be extremely challenging.

One of the limitations of the data, however, is that researchers don't know whether the person had mental health problems first and wasn't able to deal with other health issues, or the other way around.

Pratt said she could not explain why women have higher rates of serious psychological distress. “As I’m sure you are aware, we see this in major depression as well, but I don’t know that anyone has ever come up with a definitive answer of why that is,” she said.

The data from the report come from face-to-face interviews conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, collected for the National Health Interview Survey, a continuous survey with results released annually. Part of the survey includes six questions used to identify people with high likelihood of having a diagnosable mental illness. It captures information about people with serious mental health problems, but it doesn't provide enough information to make a diagnosis as to what specific mental illness a person has.


2009-2013: Percentage of adults aged 18 and over with serious psychological distress. (CDC/NCHS/National Health Interview Survey)