How Does Anxiety Look Different in Older Adults? Tips on What Symptoms Caregivers Should Be Looking For

Guest Blog by Christian Worstell

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While it is normal to feel nervous or worry from time to time, anxiety that is severe enough to interfere with daily life is not a normal part of aging. 

Research into the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety in older patients is somewhat limited; however, it is believed that anywhere between 3% and 14% of seniors meet the criteria to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder

What’s more is that over 27% of seniors receiving care through an aging services organization exhibit anxiety symptoms that negatively impact daily functioning but that do not rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis.

How Does Anxiety Differ Between Older and Younger Populations?

Anxiety and depression are often underdiagnosed and undertreated in older populations for several reasons:

  1. Older patients are more likely to emphasize physical complaints rather than psychiatric symptoms when speaking with family or a health care provider.

  2. Psychiatric symptoms in older adults may be incorrectly attributed to chronic medical conditions or dismissed as side effects of medications.

  3. Physical limitations and isolation can make it difficult for seniors to access treatment for anxiety and other mental health disorders.

Types of Anxiety Experienced by Older Adults

The most common anxiety disorder among older adults is generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by excessive anxiety or worry that lasts for six months or more and is hard to control. Clinical professionals typically look for at least three physical or cognitive symptoms for a GAD diagnosis.

Common symptoms include difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, fatigue, sleep disturbances, irritability, gastrointestinal distress and feeling keyed up or on edge. 

 Other anxiety disorders include:

  • Social anxiety disorder. Some people may experience noticeable and consistent fear of situations in which they are exposed to new people or in which they could face scrutiny. This can range from social situations such as meeting new people, eating around unfamiliar people or performing in front of a group.

    A diagnosis might be made if the fear or anxiety lasts for 6 months or longer and it causes significant impairment to social functioning.

  • Phobia. An anxiety disorder characterized by an irrational fear of something that poses little or no danger. For some people, the fear is so intense that they alter their lives to avoid the object of their fear.

  • Panic disorder. Characterized by sudden, intense feelings of terror that can occur without warning. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, chest pain or palpitations, dizziness, gastrointestinal discomfort, and intense fear or feelings of doom.

Common Causes of Anxiety in Older Adults

Several risk factors can increase the likelihood that your loved one may experience anxiety symptoms, including:

  • Stressful life events common among seniors, such as the loss of a spouse or transitioning to a smaller home or a care facility can also trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression.

  • Being diagnosed with a chronic health condition.

  • Experiencing a shift in how threats are perceived.

  • A decline in physical functioning.

  • A history of difficult events earlier in life.

  • A recent traumatic event.

Treatment Options for Anxiety

If you believe that your loved one is suffering from anxiety, you should encourage them to speak with a trained professional as soon as possible. Counseling, depression screenings and other mental health support services can be covered by Medicare

Their Medicare costs could be covered in full, or they may be responsible for deductible and copayment costs, depending on the types of services they pursue and the type of Medicare coverage they have.

In addition to talking to your loved one about their symptoms, a doctor or mental health professional can administer a mental health screening to make the appropriate diagnosis and identify treatment options, such as therapy or medication. 

Author Bio: Christian Worstell is a health and lifestyle writer living in Raleigh, NC

Christian  worstell

Christian worstell