distressed senior woman

Does Anxiety Get Better With Age?

It’s no secret that the elderly population is the fastest growing age group in the United States. In fact, there are now approximately 76 million baby boomers in the United States and that number is increasing daily. While some things get better with age (think of fine wines), will aging affect mood disorders? Does anxiety get better with age?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Although there are reasons we might expect a senior to have less anxiety, such as being retired and no longer living with the stress of the workaday world, for many older adults anxiety may not necessarily improve. In fact, anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems among older adults.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to anxiety in older adults.

  • Many seniors experience losses such as the death of a spouse or the loss of independence.
  • There are age-related brain and neurological changes that take place.
  • There are fears about the aging process itself.
  •  Social isolation and loneliness can contribute to anxiety.
  • Additionally, chronic health conditions can mimic anxiety symptoms or lead to anxiety about pain, mobility limitations or disability, and even death.

Cognitive impairment (and the fear of it) also becomes more of a concern as we age, along with a higher potential for a diagnosis of dementia and the anxiety that often comes with the condition.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that, “Anxiety has reported high prevalence rates among people with dementia. It has a negative impact on cognitive impairment and is associated with agitation and poor quality of life. The presence of excessive anxiety can be difficult to establish in people with dementia, especially when expressive or receptive speech is impaired.”

How Common Is Anxiety In Older Adults?

Anxiety is a very common problem among older adults. Depending on the resource you consult, it is estimated that between four percent and twenty percent of senior citizens experience anxiety.

This wide range is due, in part, to the fact that many elderly people will only report the physical symptoms they feel and do not talk about their worries, fears, or anxious feelings. They may shy away from reporting anything that might make them feel ashamed or “weak.” They may also feel that anxiety is an inevitable part of aging (it’s not).

What Are The Symptoms Of Anxiety In The Elderly?

Anxiety is the overall feeling of unease. Real anxiety isn’t the same as a case of nerves or worrying about an upcoming event, although those things can make you anxious. Rather, genuine anxiety takes over your life and can prevent you from functioning. It can lead to a range of different symptoms, from feeling constantly on edge and irritable to having trouble sleeping and concentrating.

In general, we can experience psychological, physical or mental symptoms of anxiety – or a combination of them.

Psychological symptoms can include:

  • Confusion or memory problems
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Unable to sleep

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations or racing heart
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscles are tense or clenched
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath

Emotional symptoms can include:

  • Feeling panicked or apprehensive
  • Engaging in rituals (such as repeated handwashing)
  • Withdrawal and/or refusal to participate in activities you used to enjoy

The National Council On Aging states, “While symptoms are an important aspect of diagnosing anxiety in older adults, even more critical is how these symptoms affect day-to-day living. Anxiety is considered problematic when it interferes with your daily functioning, your quality of life, and even your health.”

How To Manage Anxiety In The Elderly

It’s natural for the fear response to kick into gear when there’s uncertainty about what might happen next. As we grow older, life changes can be more frequent and dramatic. Additionally, our resilience may be reduced, which can make it harder for us to handle those changes in a healthy way.

Thus, when changes occur, an older adult may be more likely to struggle to find ways to cope with the new situation or unexpected loss than they would have in their younger years. They might begin to respond from a more an anxious state.

Common triggers for anxiety can include such things as:

  • A change in routine (for example, maybe a senior used to enjoy playing golf twice a week, but has been ill and unable to recently)
  • Financial concerns
  • Planning for end of life care for themselves or a loved one
  • Loss of independence
  • A change in surroundings (for example, moving to a new residence or into a care facility)
  • Health concerns
  • Loss of mobility
  • Reduced ability to take care of the tasks of daily living (dressing, bathing, feeding oneself, etc)
  • The passing of a loved one
  • Medication side effects
  • Insomnia or sleep problems
  • Genetic predisposition (mood disorders run in the family)

It can help to manage your anxiety if you try to understand what triggers your symptoms. While you can’t avoid everything that increases your anxiety, you can learn coping methods to build your resilience and better allow you to deal with your distress.

It’s also helpful to have a social network to rely on. Friends and family members or support groups (in person or online) can be a great resource, especially if you are alone or isolated.

Doing something physical can help break the cycle of troubling thoughts and calm your mind. Try to set up a regular exercise routine. This can be as simple as getting outside to walk or taking a gentle yoga or tai chi class. Activities that involve the sense of touch, such as cooking, knitting, or painting, are also helpful.

Mindfulness exercises, such as meditation or journaling, can be calming, as well. There are YouTube videos and smartphone apps available to guide you through meditations or engage in deep breathing.

As much as possible, try to have balance in your life. Eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and continue to stay socially connected. Absorb yourself in the activities you enjoy and look forward to.

Anxiety can have a devastating effect on your life, so it’s very important to speak to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional about what you’re experiencing – especially if your symptoms have been present for more than two weeks or are getting worse.

Have Further Questions?

If you or someone you love have questions or would like further information about anxiety in seniors, the mental health professionals at The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida, can help. For more information, contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.

About Dr. Andrew Rosen

Dr. Andrew Rosen PHD, ABPP, FAACP is a Board-Certified Psychologist and the Founder and Director of The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, as well as, the Founder of The Children’s Center for Psychiatry Psychology and Related Services.

Call Us (561) 496-1094