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Anxiety disorders in older adults

Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. Anxiety is a normal reaction when facing a problem at work, before taking a test, or when making an important decision.

However, anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. These feelings can interfere with things we deal with in everyday life, such as our job, our education, and our relationships.

Studies estimate that anxiety disorders affect up to 15 percent of older adults in a given year. But developing an anxiety disorder later in life is not a normal part of aging.

Anxiety disorders commonly occur along with other mental or physical illnesses, including alcohol or substance abuse, which may mask anxiety symptoms or make them worse. In older adults, anxiety disorders often occur at the same time as depression, heart disease, diabetes, and other medical problems. In some cases, these other problems need to be treated before a person can respond well to treatment for anxiety.

The three types of anxiety disorders explained in this article are:

  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • social phobia
  • panic disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

All of us worry about things like health, money, or family problems. But people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are extremely worried about these and many other things, even when there is little or no reason to worry about them. They are very anxious about just getting through the day. They think things will always go badly. At times, worrying keeps people with GAD from doing everyday tasks.

Social phobia

In social phobia, a person fears being judged by others or of being embarrassed. This fear can get in the way of doing everyday things such as going to work, running errands, or meeting with friends. People who have social phobia often know that they shouldn’t be so afraid, but they can’t control their fear.

In panic disorder, a person has sudden, unexplained attacks of terror, and often feels his or her heart pounding. During a panic attack, a person feels a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control. Panic attacks can occur at any time.

Anxiety disorders are treatable

In general, anxiety disorders are treated with medication, specific types of psychotherapy, or both. Treatment choices depend on the type of disorder, the person’s preference, and the expertise of the doctor. If you think you or someone you care about might have an anxiety disorder, talk to a doctor for more information and a treatment plan.


Information Courtesy of National Institutes of Health (NIH)

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