Harvard Mental Health Letter

Questions & answers: Compulsive hoarding

Questions & Answers

Q. My elderly friend has a serious clutter problem. She can't throw things away or organize them, and her apartment is so stuffed that it is hard to get around. She has tried herbs, hypnosis, and sessions with so-called experts, but nothing works. Could you explain this problem and describe how she can be helped?

A. The impulse to gather and store has had evolutionary advantages for the human race. Many people are happy to regard themselves as pack rats, collecting possessions while keeping them in good order and out of the way until they are needed. But some people acquire and keep so much stuff that they no longer have space to live, cook a meal, or pay their bills. They live in squalor, and they risk falling or causing a fire. In a grisly case that occurred in New York City in 1947, two brothers were living together in a town house full of junk. One died when a pile of rubbish fell on him, and the other, who depended on his brother for everything, then starved to death.

This problem, known as compulsive hoarding, is a common symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder "" in up to 20% of cases, it is the most prominent symptom. It can also occur in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, schizophrenia, dementia, mental retardation, autism, brain injury, and several personality disorders. Hoarding can even become a problem for a person with no psychiatric illness and no psychiatric history.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »