Aging and mental health: Recognizing anxiety in older adults

Anxiety is often overlooked in older adults.

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), 25 percent of older adults experience some form of a mental disorder, including anxiety, depression and dementia. This trend is set to double by 2030. NCOA also says that untreated mental health problems result in poor overall health outcomes, higher health care use, increased complexity of many illnesses, increased impairment and disabililty, a lower quality of life, increased caregiver stress, increased mortality and a high risk of suicide.

Why do older adults get symptoms of serious anxiety? According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF), a number of things can contribute to an anxiety disorder, such as extreme stress or trauma; bereavement and complicated or chronic grief; alcohol, caffeine, drugs (prescription, over-the-counter and illegal); a family history of anxiety disorders; other medical or mental illnesses or neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

The challenges of aging itself can trigger anxiety. Declining health, loss of independence, memory issues, financial issues, being vulnerable or victimized, and being lonely are all issues that can contribute to a deep feeling of anxiety. Many older adults experiencing anxiety suffered from anxiety when they were younger, and it may not have been recognized. Anxiety that lasts at least six months can get worse if not treated.

How would you recognize if you or your older loved one has problems with anxiety? The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation identifies several things that may be symptoms of serious anxiety. These include:

  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Refusing to do routine activities or being overly preoccupied with routine
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Overly concerned about safety
  • Racing heart, shallow breathing, trembling, nausea, sweating
  • Poor sleep
  • Muscle tension, feeling weak and shaky
  • Hoarding/collecting
  • Depression
  • Self-medication with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants

Despite what you may have been told, anxiety in older adults is not a part of normal aging. Michigan State University Extension recommends that if you suspect that you or your older loved one are suffering from anxiety that is preventing a higher quality of life, it is important to contact your health care provider and get the help you need to get on the road to better health. There are many well-researched strategies for reducing anxiety in older adults. Visit the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation website for more information on anxiety and other mental health issues of older adults.

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