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What puts someone over 60 at risk of psychosis?

People tend to first experience psychosis in their late teens or twenties, and most of the studies into the condition have focused on this age group.

But this has meant that older people who develop the condition are being neglected in research and our understanding around what puts them at risk remains limited.

Young scientist Jean Stafford has looked into the factors that could put someone at risk of developing psychosis when they’re older.

She studied a Swedish population cohort, which includes data on almost 3 million people, collecting data as from birth as they go through their lives. Jean and her team identified people born between 1920 – 1949, following them up from their 60th birthday until death, migration or until the end of the follow-up period.

Jean was careful to exclude people who were diagnosed with dementia before they started experiencing symptoms of psychosis, to ensure the study focused on schizophrenia-like psychosis rather than dementia symptoms.

Jean found that psychosis was more prevalent in women compared to men, which differs from how it presents in young people (where males are at the highest risk).

She also found that there were higher rates in people who had migrated, which fits in with the literature on young people, as migration is a known risk factor for psychosis.

The team analysed traumatic life events as well, and wanted to find out what impact a death of a partner or death of a child had on psychosis. They saw slightly higher rates of psychosis in people who had experienced the death of a child in infancy or the death of a partner within two years of when they were diagnosed with psychosis. But the highest rates were actually found in people who didn’t have a partner or any children at that time.

The researchers believe this could either be due to social isolation or a ‘reverse causation’, where people experiencing psychosis are less likely to have partners or children, for another reason related to their illness. 

This research is crucial for us to be able to help identify older people who might be most at risk of psychosis, so we can intervene and offer support. Too often, older people are neglected in psychosis studies, meaning they’re left without effective help. But this illness can have a devastating impact, no matter what age it develop.

Next steps for this research is to look at the mechanisms behind it so we can find out what specifically about these experiences puts someone at risk of psychosis.

Jean won an award for presenting her research at our Mental Health Science Meeting. Our poster session invites early-career scientists to share their research with other scientists, increasing discussion and developing new ideas to transform mental health.   

Last updated: 3 April 2018

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