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Does OCD Get Worse With Age? Your Questions Answered

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Does obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) get worse with age? 

Because there is no one-size-fits-all experience for individuals with OCD — or any mental health condition, for that matter — there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question! For people living with OCD, some have said their symptoms improved with age, while others report that their symptoms stay the same or even worsen. Many factors can influence an individual’s experience living with OCD and the condition’s impact on their daily life, including stress, major life events, changes to your OCD treatment plan, other health conditions or comorbidities, trauma, and sleep changes. 

And while OCD can affect people of all ages, it can affect children differently than adults. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in children

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by unwanted or intrusive thoughts (also called obsessive thoughts or “obsessions”) and repetitive behaviors or rituals (also called compulsive behaviors or “compulsions”). While every child may experience different symptoms, a child’s obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors typically change as they age. For example, a toddler’s rituals may be tied to their bathing or bedtime routines, while a teenager’s rituals may be connected to socializing, hobbies, or extracurricular activities. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that approximately 25% of people diagnosed with OCD received a diagnosis by age 14. Still, many people have received a diagnosis later in adolescence or adulthood. Symptoms can also appear at any time, although research has shown that about 30% of people living with OCD started experiencing symptoms by age 15. 

OCD can have a significant impact on a child’s life. Symptoms can interfere with their schoolwork, relationships with friends and family, and their overall well-being. If OCD is interfering with your child’s daily life, treatment can help. The most common treatments are exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and a type of medication called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). 

While the cause of OCD is unknown, research has shown that those diagnosed with OCD may have a family history of OCD. If you or a family member are living with OCD and you suspect your child might also be living with the condition, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor. 

OCD in adults

OCD signs and symptoms in adults can vary widely, but common patterns may include isolating and withdrawing from friends and family because of fear of or obsessions with germs and contamination, feeling unable to deal with changes to your daily routine, checking work assignments repeatedly, missing deadlines, and constantly worrying that others will find out about your symptoms. It’s important to note that symptoms can range in severity, but if you feel your symptoms are impacting your daily life — such as your work or relationships — talking to your doctor can help. Your doctor can work with you to determine what treatment plan is best for you. 

How does OCD change over time?

If you are living with OCD, your obsessions and compulsions may change over time — so may the severity of your symptoms and how you manage or treat them. 

As we discussed above, many factors can impact an individual’s symptoms. For example, major life events or stressors, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, could cause someone’s symptoms to worsen — just as access to effective treatment could cause someone’s symptoms to improve. 

While research suggests that OCD is less common among older adults, some older adults may still experience symptoms of OCD, and OCD may be more difficult to diagnose in this population as the signs and symptoms can overlap with other health conditions, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. 

At what age does OCD peak?

Most physicians agree that OCD does not “peak” at a certain age, but research suggests that OCD symptoms are most likely to appear during one of two time periods: 

  1. Earlier in life, typically during late childhood or early adolescence, which is commonly referred to as “early-onset” OCD.
  2. Later in life, typically during late teens or early adulthood, which is commonly referred to as “late-onset” OCD. 

Some studies have shown men are more likely to develop early-onset OCD, while women are more likely to develop late-onset OCD. Still, anyone can be diagnosed with early or late-onset OCD. 

Why does OCD get worse at times?OCD symptoms can become more severe for many reasons. Common factors that influence symptom severity include experiencing stress, trauma, or abuse, although many factors can exacerbate OCD symptoms. 

If you feel your OCD symptoms have gotten worse, you’re not alone. OCD can be incredibly debilitating and challenging to manage. But there are ways to manage your symptoms and feel better. Keep reading for tips to manage your OCD better and improve your overall well-being. 

How do you stop OCD from getting worse?

First, it’s important to remember that managing OCD can be an ongoing process, so try to be gentle with yourself as you navigate this condition. 

Here are a few tips to help manage OCD symptoms: 

  • Identify your triggers or stressors
  • Identify your compulsions and practice delaying or resisting them
  • Distract yourself
  • Spend time with your loved ones
  • Find an online community or peer support group
  • Take care of yourself – whether with sleep, physical activity, mindfulness, or something else
  • Talk to your doctor or therapist 
  • Be gentle with yourself

If you are having a difficult time managing your OCD symptoms, we are sending you extra Mighty love from our community. 

Originally published: November 15, 2023
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