While symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can begin at any age, most people will develop the condition earlier in life. Still, many wonder whether or not you can develop OCD later in life?
The simple answer is yes, but there are a lot of factors at play here, including overlapping illnesses, brain structure, and thinking patterns.
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look at OCD’s onset in life and how it comes about. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition defined by uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that are repeated over a period of time. ¹
As a type of anxiety disorder, symptoms for OCD vary from person to person. However, they’re always marked by two categories:
Thoughts, urges, or mental images that consistently repeat and cause anxiety. The most common symptoms include:
- Aggressive thoughts (either towards oneself or others)
- Fear of germs or contamination
- Making sure things are in symmetrical or perfect order
- Undesired forbidden or taboo thoughts (i.e. sexual obsessions)
Repetitive behaviors brought about by obsessive thoughts. The most common compulsions include:
- Compulsive counting
- Ensuring things are in order and arranged
- Excessive handwashing and/or cleaning
- Repeatedly checking things (i.e. whether or not the door is locked)
Again, symptoms aren’t the same across everyone. One person with OCD may have obsessions concerning germs and contamination while another may feel more compulsions to make things look neat.
When Do OCD Symptoms Appear?
OCD can begin at almost any age, but research has found there are two distinct age ranges for OCD symptoms to appear: late in childhood to early adolescence or late teens to early 20s. ²
These age ranges are referred to as “early-onset OCD” and “late-onset OCD.” While each produces similar symptoms, scientists have discovered a number of differences in individuals within each category. These include: ³
|Early-Onset OCD||Late-Onset OCD|
|Gradual appearance of symptoms||Abrupt symptom on-set (usually triggered)|
|Higher rates of tic disorders||Higher rates of anxiety and depression|
|Prevalence higher in males than females||Prevalence equal in males and females|
|Symptoms are more severe||Symptoms are mild to severe|
Still, these two onset periods don’t answer the question, “Can you develop OCD later in life?”
It’s certainly possible to develop it in later adult years, but it’s extremely uncommon. According to one study, out of 1,000 OCD patients, only 5 experienced their initial symptoms later in life. ⁴
Can you develop OCD in your 20s?
People with late-onset OCD typically develop the condition in their early 20s. While it’s possible to start seeing symptoms in your late 20s, it’s much less likely.
Can you develop OCD in your 30s?
While it’s possible to develop OCD in your 30s, it’s extremely rare. With that in mind, you may be struggling with another mental health condition.
Are you born with OCD or does it develop?
OCD tends to develop in early childhood or early adulthood. While there’s no indication that you can be born with it, studies show OCD may be genetic (i.e. if your parent has OCD, you’re more likely to develop it).
Differences in OCD Onset
When it comes to what causes OCD in the brain, research has observed a number of differences between patients. These include:
While more research is necessary, it’s believed that there are a number of brain differences between early-onset and late-onset OCD. Studies have revealed that those with late-onset OCD tend to have different neuropsychological deficits in comparison to early-onset. ⁵ However, we still don’t know why this is nor how much of an impact this has on treatment.
Can you develop OCD from stress?
As of this time, research has found no link between stress and the development of OCD.
People who develop OCD tend to also struggle with another mental health condition. However, the condition that one struggles with varies depending on the onset. ⁶
On the other hand, those with early-onset OCD tend to also struggle with an OCD subtype known as tic-related OCD. ⁷
These findings aren’t relevant for every specific case. For example, there is a chance someone with childhood anxiety can develop an early onset of OCD. Furthermore, someone with late-onset OCD may be diagnosed with tic-related OCD.
When it comes to early-onset, males have consistently proven to be more vulnerable in comparison to females. ⁸ However, the gender imbalance finds stability with late-onset OCD as most research report of no differences.
The way symptoms develop in someone with OCD differ from early-onset to late-onset. Those with early-onset OCD tend to see symptoms gradually appear over a period of time.
On the other hand, those with late-onset OCD will likely experience sudden symptoms. While it isn’t always the case, these symptoms are usually triggered by a traumatic event, such as loss of a job or death of a loved one. ⁹
Can you develop OCD from trauma?
Yes! Late-onset OCD is usually (but not always) produced when one experiences a traumatic event.
Those with early-onset OCD tend to have more severe symptoms than those with late on-set OCD. Due to the severity, early-onset OCD may be more difficult to treat than late-onset. In many cases, a child or adolescent will have to undergo a series of medication and therapies before finding the right one for them.
However, it’s worth noting that research found no difference in medication reaction when it comes to age range – that is, once the right medication was found. ¹⁰
Still, we can say that those with late-onset OCD tend to have mild symptoms and have an easier time at overcoming the condition. Regardless of your position, it’s important to treat OCD early as symptoms can worsen over time.
While most people develop OCD between childhood and early 20s, it is possible to develop the condition later in life. However, since this is such a rare occurrence, there’s a chance you’re struggling with another mental health condition.
In order to better understand your position, it’s key to see a mental health professional. With an understanding of your situation, they will be able to appropriately diagnose you.
Still have questions concerning whether or not you can develop OCD later in life?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
² Current Neuropharmacology: Psychopharmacological Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
³ Current Neuropharmacology: Diagnostic Issues in Early-Onset Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and their Treatment Implications
⁴ The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences: Late-onset obsessive-compulsive disorder: a case series
⁵ Indian Journal of Psychiatry: Neurocognitive deficits in obsessive–compulsive disorder: A selective review
⁶ Indian Journal of Psychiatry: Challenges in the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric obsessive–compulsive disorder
⁷ Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Tic-Related Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Phenomenology and Treatment Outcome in the Pediatric OCD Treatment Study II
⁸ Current Psychiatry Reports: Epidemiological and Clinical Gender Differences in OCD
⁹ Chapter Metrics Overview: Manifestation and Treatment of OCD and Spectrum Disorders within a Pediatric Population
¹⁰ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines: Children with very early onset obsessive-compulsive disorder: clinical features and treatment outcome