BACKGROUND: Physical morbidity is a potent risk factor for depression onset and clearly increases with age, yet prior research has often found depressive disorders to decrease with age. This study tests the possibility that the relationship between age and mental disorders differs as a function of physical co-morbidity. METHOD: Eighteen general population surveys were carried out among household-residing adults as part of the World Mental Health (WMH) surveys initiative (n=42 697). DSM-IV disorders were assessed using face-to-face interviews with the Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI 3.0). The effect of age was estimated for 12-month depressive and/or anxiety disorders with and without physical or pain co-morbidity, and for physical and/or pain conditions without mental co-morbidity. RESULTS: Depressive and anxiety disorders decreased with age, a result that cannot be explained by organic exclusion criteria. No significant difference was found in the relationship between mental disorders and age as a function of physical/pain co-morbidity. The majority of older persons have chronic physical or pain conditions without co-morbid mental disorders; by contrast, the majority of those with mental disorders have physical/pain co-morbidity, particularly among the older age groups. CONCLUSIONS: CIDI-diagnosed depressive and anxiety disorders in the general population decrease with age, despite greatly increasing physical morbidity with age. Physical morbidity among persons with mental disorder is the norm, particularly in older populations. Health professionals, including mental health professionals, need to address barriers to the management of physical co-morbidity among those with mental disorders.