Aging and mental health: Recognizing anxiety in older adults

Anxiety is often overlooked in older adults.

An older person's hands clasped.
Photo: Unsplash.

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), 25 percent of older adults experience behavioral health issues. This can include living with depression, substance use disorder or anxiety. The NCOA also states that untreated mental health problems result in poorer overall health outcomes, higher health care use, increased complexity of many illnesses, increased impairment and disability, a lower quality of life, increased caregiver stress, increased mortality and a higher risk of suicide.

Why do older adults feel symptoms of serious anxiety? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, several things can contribute to an anxiety disorder, such as extreme stress or trauma or a family history of anxiety disorders. The challenges of aging itself can trigger anxiety as well; declining health, loss of independence, memory issues, changing financial situations, being vulnerable or victimized and loneliness can contribute to 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 National Institute of Mental Health identifies several symptoms to keep an eye out for. These include:

  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry.
  • Feeling restless or on-edge.
  • Being easily fatigued.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Irritability.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Sleep problems.

Anxiety experienced by older adults is not a part of normal aging. Michigan State University Extension recommends that if you or a loved one experience anxiety that interferes with your 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. MSU Extension’s Mindfulness for Better Living website also has a variety of mindfulness resources that may help, and the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation also has more information on anxiety and other mental health issues of older adults.

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