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Is it Normal to Have Anxiety as You Get Older?

Is it Normal to Have Anxiety as You Get Older?

As the most prevalent mental health condition in the United States, anxiety affects adults of all ages, but particularly seniors. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, up to 17% of adults 65 and older have an anxiety disorder diagnosis.

This doesn’t mean that only 17% of seniors experience anxiety, however. It’s extremely common for anxiety disorders to go undiagnosed, due to several factors including reluctance to discuss symptoms, lack of awareness that symptoms are present due to having experienced them for so long and interpreting them as ‘normal’, or symptoms being overlooked when focusing on the symptoms and medications of other co-occurring conditions. Because of this, experts estimate that the actual number of older adults suffering with anxiety is significantly higher.

Of older adults that do have an official anxiety disorder diagnosis, few are actually treated for it. According to a 2023 peer-reviewed journal, JAMA Psychiatry, only one third of adults 65 and older diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) receive any treatment for it. So unfortunately, while it is very ‘normal’ to experience anxiety as you age, thankfully it is treatable.

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It’s important to recognize the root causes, signs, and symptoms of anxiety in older adults, and get proper treatment. Let’s take a closer look at anxiety in older adults and how it can be managed.

Causes of Anxiety in Older Adults

Anxiety in older adults can have many different causes, some related to physical health and others more situational. Here are some common causes of anxiety in older adults:

Phobias – phobias, or pronounced irrational fears centered around specific things, are an extremely common form of anxiety and affect people of all ages. Common phobias include heights, being in a closed-in space or a very wide open space, flying, insects, or driving on the highway, among others. Phobias more common in older adults include the fear of death, fear of bad things happening to their loved ones, and fear of medical or dental procedures.

Social Anxiety – It can be nerve-wracking to attempt to be a social butterfly if you’re typically more introverted. Social anxiety takes this common nervousness a step further. For older adults with social anxiety, they may fear that they’ll do or say something embarrassing in a group of people due to factors related to their age. This fear of judgment and ostracization by others is often more pronounced if they have a medical condition that affects their memory or their physical appearance.

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) – PTSD has been commonly associated with war veterans, and many seniors are veterans of major world wars. In actuality, PTSD affects people of all ages and walks of life. Any trauma in one’s lifetime can develop into PTSD under certain conditions, and symptoms can sometimes take years, even decades, to surface.

Family History of Anxiety – While environmental factors are certainly a contributing factor to the development of anxiety disorders, there is evidence to suggest that some psychiatric disorders are heritable. A family history of anxiety disorders increases the likelihood of a senior experiencing anxiety themselves.

Medication Side-Effects – As we age, we’re more likely to acquire medical conditions that require prescription management. Prescription medications often carry side effects of varying severity, and anxiety and its physical manifestations (night sweats, palpitations, shortness of breath) is a common side effect of many medications.

Health and environmental conditions – When an older adult is living with a physical illness or is under financial stress, this can significantly contribute to feelings of anxiety. Fearing things like loss of mobility or independence, worrying about money, grieving the death of a loved one or friend, experiencing memory issues or chronic pain, and worrying about end-of-life planning are all very common and reasonable contributing factors to anxiety in the elderly.

“Normal” Anxiety vs Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is a natural feeling that everyone experiences from time to time, and is actually beneficial for certain situations. An anxiety response helps notify us of a real danger, gauge a level of threat, or keep ourselves alert when doing something risky or important.

When these responses in the body and brain are triggered by situations that aren’t truly threatening, or when these feelings are prevalent enough that they interfere with daily living and quality of life, this is when it’s worthwhile to seek guidance from a mental healthcare provider to explore the possibility of an official anxiety disorder diagnosis.

Normal feelings of anxiety may be breaching into anxiety disorder territory if you experience the following regularly, for prolonged periods or at extreme levels:

  • Feeling irritable or having angry outbursts
  • Feeling restless, antsy, on edge, like something “bad” is going to happen (this is often referred to as an impending sense of doom)
  • Struggling with concentration – forgetting words or losing your train of thought
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Feeling like you’re constantly worrying, or that your worrying is interfering with work, school, or interpersonal relationships
  • Feeling like worries are all-consuming, upsetting, or difficult to control
  • Physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, trembling, tense muscles, tension headaches, or gastrointestinal upset
  • Difficulty sleeping – either having trouble falling/staying asleep despite feeling very tired, or sleeping too much to ‘escape’ your worries and thoughts
  • Experiencing panic attacks
  • Developing compulsive behaviors in order to attempt to control worries and fears
  • Experiencing catastrophic thinking or ‘black-and-white’ all-or-nothing thinking
  • You find yourself turning to unhealthy distractions to numb your worried thoughts – excessively playing games, indulging in substances like alcohol or overeating

How Senior Living Communities Can Reduce Anxiety

Living in a senior living community helps older adults combat anxiety in several different ways:

Built-in Community of Support and Friendship

Feelings of isolation and spending a lot of time alone create a breeding ground for anxious thoughts and anxiety’s common comorbidity – depression. In senior living communities, a sense of community and social engagement is fostered through common spaces like community dining rooms, clubs and activities, and caring and attentive staff that help ensure residents are feeling as involved as they’d like to be in the community.

Maintaining Independence

Independent living communities are created to support as much independence as possible for seniors. From accessible living spaces, to senior fitness classes to promote mobility, to built-in security and on-demand maintenance, living in an independent living community can help put anxieties about losing independence to rest.

Safety First

For older adults feeling anxious about falling and hurting themselves or experiencing a medical emergency while alone, senior living communities provide immense peace of mind. With staff available 24/7, buildings designed with safety in mind, and access to additional supportive services like physical therapy and senior wellness programs, this allows residents to put their minds at ease.

Enrichment Activities and Visits with Loved Ones

Staying active and keeping the mind engaged helps to sharpen cognitive skills and soothe anxiety. Senior living communities provide regular mind-stimulating activities like board games, language learning classes, and book clubs, and also supports socio-emotional wellbeing by offering special events for loved ones to participate in, and of course, regular visits with family and friends.

Prioritize Wellness with Five Star Senior Living

Aging doesn’t have to cause anxiety. At Five Star Senior Living, our Lifestyle360 program focuses on all areas of health – emotional, physical, intellectual, and community. Taking a holistic approach to senior wellness enables our residents to live their best lives and combat the most common sources of anxiety in older adults. To get started on your journey to a healthy, stress-free senior lifestyle, find a Five Star Senior Living community near you.

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