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Anxiety and Aging

Anxiety Also Affects the Elderly

Older people experience anxiety and anxiety disorders, often because of age-related stressors. Here’s how caregivers can help them cope.

Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH


Feeling anxious or nervous when you’re stressed out is common, but when this anxiety is frequent, overwhelming, and affects daily tasks, social life, and relationships, it may be an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorder can affect anyone at any age, and the elderly are no exception.

In fact, anxiety may affect as many as 10 to 20 percent of the older population, although it is often undiagnosed and often goes hand-in-hand with depression.

Anxiety Disorder: Why the Elderly Are Affected

“Although anxiety disorders beginning in later life are uncommon, the symptoms of anxiety are quite common in older adults,” says George T. Grossberg, MD, professor and director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “The main reason is that older adults are subjected to a variety of stresses and losses, any of which can cause or be accompanied by anxiety symptoms.”

These stresses can include retirement, especially if it is sudden; loss or illness of a loved one; a decline in physical, cognitive, or emotional health; or financial concerns, explains Dr. Grossberg. Many older adults are also afraid of falling, being dependent on others, being left alone, and death.

Anxiety Disorder: Getting Needed Help for Loved Ones

Left untreated, anxiety and anxiety disorders can lead to other problems, such as cognitive impairment, poor physical health, and a poor quality of life. So have your loved one examined by a primary care physician if you suspect that he or she has an anxiety disorder. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatments available if an anxiety disorder is diagnosed:

  • Psychotherapy or counseling. A mental health professional, such as a geriatric psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker, can help determine what is causing the anxiety disorder and how to deal with its symptoms. “In many cases, a ‘behavioral’ approach, such as cognitive-behavior therapy, will give a person the tools to manage themselves,” says Stephen Read, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist and clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
  • Medication. While drugs won’t cure anxiety disorders, they can help control these disorders while your loved one is in therapy. The main medications used to treat anxiety disorders are antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and beta-blockers. Antidepressants (specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) are preferred over anti-anxiety medication, as they are non-addicting and generally well-tolerated.
  • Stress reduction. Adopting stress management techniques, such as meditation, prayer, and deep breathing from the lower abdomen, can help lower anxiety. Yoga, progressive relaxation, and tai chi may also be beneficial, says Grossberg.
  • Getting better-quality sleep. A good night’s rest may also help. “Sleep disorders are of course rampant in those with anxiety, and improving sleep, which often requires medicine, will be a big help,” says Dr. Read.
  • Staying active. Activity of any kind, be it physical or intellectual, can ease anxiety symptoms. “Encouraging the use of routines, exercise and activity, and socialization may be useful. Relaxing activities and hobbies should be encouraged. Gardening, fishing, art, and music are particularly relaxing for some older adults,” says Grossberg.
  • Avoiding triggers. Your loved one should avoid things that can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as caffeine, smoking, over-the-counter cold medications, and alcohol.

As a caregiver for an older person with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, the responsibility may be on you to ensure that your loved one is receiving treatment. Fortunately, there is much you can do to help.

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