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Anxiety in Older Adults

Feeling anxious or nervous is a normal human emotion for people of all ages & is a normal reaction to stress, but when worry & fear interfere with normal functioning, it could be an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder causes feelings of fear, worry, or dread that are disproportional to the problems or situations that are feared.

Anxiety is a common illness among older adults, though it is often undiagnosed. Late-life anxiety often occurs with depression or medical illness & there can be substantial overlap of symptoms.  Older adults often do not recognize their symptoms or may be reluctant to discuss their feelings. Doctors & older adults frequently view anxiety & fear as normal consequences of aging, but developing an anxiety disorder late in life is not a normal part of aging. 

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include excessive worry or fear, refusing to do everyday activities, avoiding social situations, being overly concerned about safety, hypersensitivity to sound,  poor sleep, depression, hoarding, memory problems, & flashbacks.  Physical symptoms of anxiety include racing heart, increased blood pressure, shallow breathing, trembling/shaking, nausea, sweating, feeling weak, & muscle tension. 

Risk factors for anxiety disorders include trauma or extreme stress, losses, medical illnesses, increasing frailty, lack of social supports, certain medications, the presence of another psychiatric disorder (such as depression), & the use of substances such as caffeine, alcohol, & drugs.  Anxiety disorders are more common in females than in males & less common among older adults than younger adults.

Some ways to deal with anxiety are talking with a supportive person, exercising, using stress management techniques, keeping busy to focus on something other than the source of worry, deep breathing, avoiding things that can make anxiety worse (Ex: caffeine, alcohol, illegal drugs, nicotine), progressive muscle relaxation, & visualization. 

An anxiety disorder can get worse if not treated, leading to cognitive impairment, poor physical health, depression, & a poor quality of life.  Fortunately, anxiety is treatable with medication, therapy, stress reduction, & coping skills. Older adults who think they may have anxiety should consult with their healthcare providers.

--Submitted by Cheryl Solesbee, LISW-CP

                             Medical University of South Carolina

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