Late-life anxiety disorders are twice as prevalent as dementia among older adults, and four to eight times more prevalent than major depressive disorders.
According to the National Institutes of Health, anywhere from 3 to 14 percent of older adults experience anxiety disorders in a given year. These disorders all involve excessive, irrational fear and can worsen if they are untreated.
Seniors can experience anxiety for many reasons
It could be because of circumstances such as suffering from extreme stress, trauma, or bereavement. A physical cause may be to blame, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, a medical condition, or mental illness. A family history of anxiety can be a contributing factor as can alcohol, caffeine, or medications.
The effects of stress and anxiety on seniors
Stress and anxiety are the fight-and-flight instincts that are the body’s way of responding to emergencies. Research shows that long-term activation of the body’s stress response impairs the immune system’s ability to fight against disease and increases the risk of physical and mental health problems. For example, studies have shown that stress and anxiety in older adults are associated with increased physical problems, such as disability and difficulty in carrying out activities of daily living; increased health problems, such as coronary artery disease; and a decreased sense of well-being and satisfaction with life.
Major types of elderly anxiety disorders in seniors include the following:
- Acute Stress Disorder: Anxiety and behavioral disturbances that develop within the first month after exposure to an extreme trauma.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Symptoms of acute stress disorder that persist for longer than one month.
- Panic Attacks: A sudden, unpredictable, intense, illogical fear and dread.
- Social Anxiety: A preoccupation with how the senior feels he or she is perceived by others.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): A pattern of excessive worrying over simple, everyday occurrences and events.
- Phobias: Irrational fear of situations such as heights, or fear of objects, such as snakes.
- Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD): A pattern of intrusive thoughts that assault the mind and produce extreme anxiety that can only be mitigated by an action, such as hand washing in a ritualistic way.
Recognizing the symptoms of anxiety in elders
Anxiety disorders in seniors have been underestimated for several reasons. One of the main reasons is that older patients are more likely to emphasize their physical complaints, and downplay their emotional problems.
Anxiety can be accompanied by a number of symptoms in seniors
Physical clues include a racing heart, shallow breathing, trembling, nausea, sweating, dry mouth, a change in appetite, or insomnia. Behaviorally, anxious older adults may refuse to do routine activities or become overly preoccupied with their routines, may avoid social situations, might focus too much on one particular issue, or may begin to hoard. They can also experience changes emotionally. They may worry excessively, become moody, or seem depressed. Self-medicating can be another possible indication of anxiety.
How you can help. If you suspect that a loved one is experiencing anxiety, it is important that you help him or her to seek treatment. This could be challenging because some older people may not feel comfortable discussing mental health. The senior’s doctor should be the first stop to rule out physical problems. A loved one also may be more comfortable talking with his or her doctor.
Anxiety disorders usually respond well to a combination of medication and talk therapy. While prescription drugs should be used with caution in seniors, and often at lower doses, there are now some effective medications that physicians can prescribe. Numerous studies have indicated that medications can be most effective when the senior also meets with a skilled counselor, therapist, or social worker on a regular basis. Other effective treatments can include meditation, biofeedback, massage, and acupuncture.
Senior groups and organizations also can be a helpful resource for assistance. Don’t underestimate the value of encouraging the senior to help others through volunteer work, either. Volunteering provides a meaningful focus and sense of purpose that can redirect and calm anxious seniors.
Comfort Keepers® can help, too. Comfort Keepers®’ Interactive Caregiving™ keeps senior clients engaged physically, mentally, and emotionally while living independently at home. Call your local office today to find out more about the many ways we can help your loved one, even during the toughest of times.
- American Psychological Association. “ Coping with Stress and Anxiety”. Web. 2015.
- Live Science. “Anxiety May Increase With Age”. Web. 2016.
- Everyday Health. “Helping Elderly Loved Ones through Anxiety of Aging”. Web. 2013.