Frightful Feelings: What You Need to Know About Anxiety in Older Adults

October is all about spooky and scary fun, as thrill seekers everywhere flock to haunted houses, costume parties and horror movies. People are willing to seek out and even pay for brief encounters with fear. However, excessive uneasiness and apprehension over time can become a very frightening problem that affects daily functioning and overall wellness.

In the United States, about 40 million adults suffer from anxiety disorders. It was once thought that anxiety decreases with age; the medical community now recognizes that this is not necessarily true. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, just one diagnosis among several anxiety related conditions, impacts about seven percent of U.S. seniors. Symptoms of anxiety often mimic other issues, especially in older adults, making diagnosis difficult.

  • Physical symptoms. It’s important to note that older adults often report physical symptoms when experiencing anxiety. Though this makes diagnosis even more difficult, anxiety can present as aches and pains, nausea and other digestive issues, shortness of breath, and chest pains. Severe symptoms should always be checked out by a medical professional.
  • Cognitive symptoms. Anxiety can impair mental functioning, including memory and concentration. Further, the cognitive decline that comes with aging or disorders such as Alzheimer’s can also lead to increased anxiety.
  • Behavioral symptoms. Anxiety can present as irritability and even anger. It is important to investigate the cause of behavioral changes, considering anxiety as a possibility.

There are several other factors that are important to note when anxiety may be diagnosed. Make note of these in order to discuss with your physician.

  • Personal history. Those with a history of anxiety and/or a mood disorder are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder as an older adult.
  • Family history. Anxiety disorders tend to run in families and are thought to have a genetic component. If known, family history should be discussed, including past relatives who were on medication “for nerves,” which was often used in the past instead of giving a mental health diagnosis.
  • Chronic medical conditions and medications. Some conditions and medications are well known to exacerbate anxiety or to mimic the symptoms.
  • Substance use. It is important to share with your doctor any chronic abuse or increase in use of substances, including alcohol or caffeine (which can increase anxiety in some people).
  • Symptoms. Include excessive worrying, rumination of negative thoughts, compulsive behavior, irritability, panic, racing thoughts, and difficulty eating or sleeping.
  • Duration. Increased symptoms lasting more than a couple weeks should be evaluated by a professional.
  • Trigger. Note whether a traumatic event such as a surgery, illness or fall occurred before the onset of symptoms. Likewise, notice any patterns such as time of day or activity that may be present with anxiety.
  • Impact. Does your loved one avoid going certain places or doing certain things because of anxiety? How is it affecting their life?

These considerations should help you determine whether anxiety could be a problem for you or your loved one and whether it is time to seek help. In our next blog, we will explore treatment and coping.

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