Anxiety in the Elderly

Anxiety is an all too common occurrence in the lives of the elderly.  Yet, it is often not clearly understood among health professionals and family members why an elderly individual might be especially prone to anxiety.  And, anxiety disorders in the elderly often reveal themselves through physical problems and complaints, thereby, masking the underlying emotional distress.

We know, though, that there are many unique stressors which the elderly face which can contribute to anxiety.  Left unchecked, everyday stress and worries can coalesce into anxiety disorders.

Anxiety Disorders in the Elderly

Anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent anxiety, tension, and worry along with physical signs and symptoms of stress arousal.  Anxiety disorders can contribute to developing depression and hopelessness and are surprisingly common in the elderly – affecting as many as 7% of all elderly individuals.

Causes of Anxiety Disorders in the Elderly

It is hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why anxiety disorders occur in the elderly.  In some cases, elderly individuals may suffer from anxiety disorders that followed them into their senior years.  But, it is clear that the senior years are associated with many, many life changes that, for many, can be overwhelming – coping with chronic health problems, loss of loved ones, and financial hardship living on a fixed income.

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders in the Elderly

It is often difficult to recognize the symptoms of anxiety disorders in the elderly because the symptoms are so likely to be masked by physical complaints and ailments.  For example, the senior might present to the family doctor complaining of chest pains, shortness of breath, and upset stomach.  These complaints will often trigger a host of medical tests to rule out more serious physical ailments and the underlying anxiety disorder is often ignored.  Some of the common symptoms of anxiety disorders in the elderly include persistent anxiety, recurrent worry, feelings of tension and being on edge, and experience of hightened stress arousal / panic episodes.

Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in the Elderly

Anxiety disorders are usually treated in older adults with the use of anti-depressants, such as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) and anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines (like Valium, Xanex, and Klonipin).  There are benefits and side effects associated with each type of medication that must be carefully discussed with your doctor.  Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is an evidence-based treatment that has been shown to be highly effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders in the elderly.  Here, elderly individuals are encouraged to make active, goal-directed changes in their thinking and behavior to combat their anxious feelings.

Before any treatment can be effective, it is critical for all involved including the elderly individual, family members, healthcare providers, and caregivers should accept the facts regarding the anxiety disorder, come to an agreement regarding the problem, and stay committed to the treatment process.