A New Look at Seniors and Anxiety

We now know that excess worrying isn't just a part of growing older.

Worried senior woman

Mom seems to spend most of her time in the house these days. Though she's never suffered a serious fall injury, she's afraid she might. Crowds make her nervous. Once a jolly, generous presence at family gatherings, she now often turns the subject to alarming articles she's read in the newspaper or on the internet. Her children and grandkids are fine, but she wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about them. What's happening to her?

There's no denying that we face concerns as we grow older. We might worry about our physical or financial health. Vision loss and arthritis make us all too aware that we could fall. As our family grows, it's likely that someone has challenges to deal with. And just turn on the TV — it might seem that there's more to worry about than ever! A recent poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that 39 percent of American adults report feeling more anxious today than they were even a year ago.

Yet studies also show that many seniors feel a greater sense of peace than they did when they were younger. Anxiety isn't an inevitable part of growing older. So if it seems that an older loved one is preoccupied with troubling thoughts, consider that they might be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Normal worrying or an anxiety disorder?

A certain amount of worrying is natural. It helps us avoid danger and solve problems. The accompanying elevated heart rate and increased chemicals in the brain help us be ready to confront a danger. But sometimes, feelings of anxiety persist even when the trigger is over. One patient described it like this: "My heart pounds, my stomach hurts, my muscles tense — then I seem to think of something to worry about … especially in the middle of the night."

Anxiety disorders can rob an older adult of healthy sleep, harm their relationships, and raise their risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, dementia, stroke, digestive problems and even osteoporosis. Why? Stress hormones are bad for our bodies all around. People who are anxious also are more likely to drink too much alcohol, smoke and eat junk food.

If you’ve noticed that a loved one seems worried much of the time, talk about it. Encourage your loved one to discuss the problem with their healthcare provider. Today, doctors have a better understanding about changes in the brain that can cause us to worry excessively.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes three types of anxiety disorders:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is when a person feels constantly on edge, unable to control thoughts about worrying things. The fear seems to be in the body as much as the brain, causing ongoing muscle tension, fatigue and sleep problems. A person with GAD also might "go blank," unable to concentrate or even to think for a period of time. According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, GAD is the most common anxiety disorder among older adults.

Panic disorders cause sudden periods of intense fear, often for little or no reason. A person having a panic attack may experience a pounding heart or palpitations, sweating, trembling and shaking, and difficulty breathing. They may experience a sense of dissociation or feel faint. Their fearful thoughts may cycle rapidly and they may even think they are dying. Many people who have panic attacks report that their greatest fear is of having another one!

Social anxiety disorder, or "social phobia," causes a person to fear interacting with others. The person may feel self-conscious, fearing they'll offend others or be judged and rejected. To avoid the common symptoms, such as blushing, sweating and nausea — similar to those of GAD, but triggered by social contact — they may isolate themselves, which is bad for their health in so many ways and only makes the problem worse.

What causes anxiety disorders?

Anxiety may happen when a person faces changed life circumstances — financial problems, loss of a spouse, or concerns about family members. Anxiety may have a physical cause, such as overactive thyroid, low blood sugar or a high level of cortisol in the body. In January 2018, experts from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston noted that increased anxiety could be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. For other people, heightened anxiety might be an inborn trait. And certain medications can cause fear-like symptoms in the body.

Anxiety disorders are treatable. Treatment might include:

Counseling and therapy. Individually targeted psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can help a person think differently about the things that trigger anxiety, and develop coping strategies. Patients may avoid therapy because it requires them to focus on things they usually avoid, so it's important to choose a therapist who is knowledgeable about anxiety disorders. Support groups also can be beneficial; ask the doctor for a recommendation.

Stress management techniques. Meditation, yoga, self-calming strategies and similar mind-body activities can help lessen the effects of anxiety and lower the stress that triggers it.

Medications. Drugs can't cure anxiety disorders, but some can relieve the symptoms. Medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, beta blockers, and hormones for women. These medications should be taken only under the supervision of the person's healthcare provider, who can judge whether a drug is effective and be alert for side effects.

Medication review. Certain drugs that seniors take to manage their health conditions can cause or worsen anxiety. The doctor or pharmacist can suggest alternatives to those drugs. Never stop taking a drug or change the way you take it unless the doctor recommends it.

Lifestyle changes. Studies show that exercise, spending time outside and eating a healthy diet can all lower anxiety. Socialization also has a calming effect — although people who are suffering from social anxiety may need support as they increase the amount of time they spend with others.

In most cases, a combination of these treatments yields the best result.

Home care can help.

Many families today take advantage of professional in-home care to support the safety and health of senior loved ones. If your loved one suffers from an anxiety disorder, a professional caregiver can provide medication reminders and prepare healthy meals. Their reassuring presence can help your loved one feel safer both in the home and out. And having a nonjudgmental and compassionate professional around can be very good for seniors with social anxiety, helping to break the cycle of fear and isolation.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your loved one's doctor. If you notice signs of increased anxiety, encourage your loved one to discuss the problem with a healthcare professional.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.