Generalized Anxiety in Older Adults

As they adapt to the changes of aging, it’s common for older adults to express fear or worry every now and then. For example, an older relative or friend might voice concern about falling down stairs or driving at night.

Sometimes, though, fears and worries can take over and affect their daily life and activities, even their health. And that’s not a normal part of aging. It’s possibly a mental health issue known as an anxiety disorder.

If you’re older or caring for someone who is, here’s what you should know about anxiety in older adults.

What Is Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety disorders are the most common group of mental health disorders. Some 32% of Americans experience any anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Up to 15% of older adults have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, according to a review in Gerontology. Even without a diagnosis, 27% of older adults under the care of an aging service provider have symptoms of anxiety. These symptoms seriously impact their daily life, according to Mental Health America.

Common anxiety disorders in seniors

Anxiety disorder is an umbrella term. For anxiety disorders late in life, these are the most commonly diagnosed, according to the review in Gerontology:

  • Agoraphobia. This is the fear of leaving your house. It’s also an intense fear of any place or situation that’s difficult to leave or escape. This occurs the most frequently, in 4.9% of older adults with anxiety disorder.
  • Panic disorder. This occurs in 3.8% of older adults. It’s when you have recurrent panic attacks, with no apparent cause.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD. This occurs in 3.1% of older adults. People with GAD have excessive, long-term anxiety over everyday tasks and activities.
  • Specific phobias. This occurs in 2.9% of older adults. These are fears over specific places, things, situations, groups of people, animals, or insects.
  • Social phobia. This occurs in 1.3% of older adults.

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Anxiety Problems in Older Adults

Oftentimes, anxiety in older adults remains undiagnosed or untreated. Uncontrolled anxiety can get in the way of daily life, activities, and well-being. It can also affect their health in other ways.

Health risks of anxiety in older adults

For older adults, anxiety often occurs with or gets linked to:

  • Depression.
  • Sleep disorders.
  • Substance use disorders.
  • Increased cognitive decline.
  • Increased risk of other health conditions.
  • Increase risk of early death.

Depression and anxiety in older adults

When older adults have both anxiety and depression they often have more severe symptoms of both, according to the Administration on Aging. Having both of these mental health issues also puts older adults at risk of:

  • Difficulties with social functioning.
  • Increased use of health care services.
  • More physical health symptoms, such as chest pain, headaches, sweating, and gastrointestinal problems.
  • More thoughts of suicide.
  • Treatment for these conditions taking longer to work.

Anxiety signs and symptoms in older adults

It’s often hard to tell whether an older adult has an anxiety disorder. Things like other health conditions, cognitive decline, or changes in social situations can get in the way. Some seniors may have a difficult time explaining their symptoms or may keep their fears to themselves.

Recognizing the symptoms of anxiety is the first step in getting older adults the help they need. Signs and symptoms of anxiety in older adults include:

  • Difficulty controlling feelings of anxiety.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Irritability and mood swings.
  • Feeling on edge, jittery, or restless.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Getting fatigued easily.
  • Headaches.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Heart palpitations or fast heart rate.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Avoiding certain situations or places.
  • Trembling or shaking.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Shortness of breath.

Risk Factors for Late-Life Anxiety

As people age, they face social and physical situations that may contribute to anxiety. Risk factors for anxiety in older adults include:

  • Living alone.
  • Physical illness or limitations.
  • Cognitive decline.
  • Chronic medical conditions, especially chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, thyroid disease, and diabetes.
  • Feeling or believing they are in poor health.
  • Sleep disturbance.
  • Medication side effects.
  • Alcohol or prescription medication misuse or abuse.
  • Stressful life events.
  • Childhood trauma.
  • Neuroticism or obsession over physical symptoms.

Treatment for Anxiety

If you’re an older adult (or care for one) and suspect you have an anxiety disorder, talk to your doctor. They can help you figure out what’s going on with your mental health. They can also get you started on a treatment plan to help you control your anxiety.

Treatment for anxiety can include medication, psychotherapy, and/or talk therapy.

Anxiety in Late Life: An Update on Pathomechanisms. Gerontology. 2019. Link.

Anxiety in Older Adults: Mental Health in Older Adults. Mental Health America. Link.

Anxiety Disorders in Older Patients. The Primary Care Companion. 2019. Link.

Anxiety Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Link.

Older Americans Behavioral Health Issue Brief 6: Depression and Anxiety: Screening and Intervention. Administration on Aging. Link.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.