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Anxiety and Generalized Anxity Disorder in the Elderly

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Anxiety and Generalized Anxity Disorder in the ElderlyWe all experience anxiety at some time or the other – before an exam, that job interview or other life changing and important events. It is usually short lived in these instances and understandable as the situation may be scary and the outcome even more nerve wracking. However, it is when anxiety comes about for no clearly identifiable reason or even with the slightest stress that it needs to be investigated further. Repetitive anxiety attacks in these cases may be part of a psychological condition known as a general anxiety disorder.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is essentially a feeling of worry and nervousness. It is only a problem if it persists for long periods of time despite there being no clear cause of worry, or if it recurs continuously even about everyday activities and events. Most of us do not experience anxiety about routine events in life. When this starts occurring then it is a clear indication that the anxiety is out of control and part of a disorder – generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Causes of Anxiety in the Elderly

The exact reason why anxiety occurs is not well understood. Sometimes it may be part of other conditions like depression. However, anxiety is almost twice as common as depression in the elderly. It is possible that there is an imbalance in some of the brain hormones like serotonin and dopamine but this cannot always be conclusively identified.

Anxiety may occur with certain conditions like Parkinson’s disease, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) and even menopause. However, in the elderly there may also be other reasons that are not commonly seen in younger individuals. Worry about finances, debilitating illnesses, being alone should a spouse die and death itself is not uncommon. Just thinking about these events or situations may trigger an anxiety attack.

While anxiety in these cases is understandable, it is a problem if it persistent for six months or more and in particular if it is triggered during routine activities. Often the anxiety starts up for no reason or even with everyday tasks like driving or visiting the mall.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety is often missed in the elderly as is the case with depression. The main reason is that there is a misconception that feeling sad or being worried is a normal part of aging. However, there are definitive ways to determine when a person is having a ‘down’ day or is stressed from  depression and anxiety. It is therefore advisable that these psychological states are assessed by a mental health professional.

The signs and symptoms of anxiety are similar to depression symptoms. This includes :

  • Constant state of worry and concern
  • Irritability
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Restless and uneasiness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and sometimes vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Generalized aches and pains

Treatment of Anxiety in the Elderly

Medication and psychotherapy are the main approaches for treating anxiety. Since the elderly may be using chronic medication for other conditions, these drugs should be used only under the strict supervision of a doctor. Medication for anxiety may include antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and mild tranquilizers

It is important for anxiety patients to note that psychotherapy and counseling is not an overnight solution. Treatment in this regard is ongoing for months and even years but when combined with lifestyle changes it can be very effective in treating and managing depression in the long run. It is the preferred solution rather just opting for lifetime of medication.


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