Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder and How it Affects Seniors

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Anxiety can be crippling and impact all aspects of a senior’s life. Identifying and diagnosing anxiety in seniors is often difficult and can cause it to go undiagnosed. Many people associate excessive worrying with the normal aging process, when in fact it can have serious consequences.

Dr. Eric J. Lenze at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has said, “Surprisingly, there is little research that has been done on [generalized anxiety disorder] in the elderly…Due to the lack of evidence, doctors often think that this disorder is rare in the elderly or that it is a normal part of aging, so they don’t diagnose or treat anxiety in their older patients, when, in fact, anxiety is quite common in the elderly and can have a serious impact on quality of life.”

The best estimates believe that 10% of seniors aged 65 years and older have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

Learn about how to recognize anxiety in a senior and what you can do for seniors with anxiety by reading on!

What is General Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?

90% of late-life anxiety is accounted for by GAD. GAD is defined by the excessive worrying over routine events and activities for a period of 6 months or longer. It is also the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder.  When a senior has GAD, their quality of life may deteriorate. This anxiety disorder affects twice as many women than men. Lookout for these common signs and symptoms of GAD:

  • Persistent worrying or obsession about small or large concerns that are out of proportion to the impact of the event
  • Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
  • Inability to relax, restlessness, and feeling on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind “goes blank”
  • Worrying about excessively worrying
  • Distress about making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision
  • Carrying every option in a situation all the way out to its possible negative conclusion
  • Difficulty handling uncertainty

There are also physical symptoms of GAD you should be aware of:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension or muscle aches
  • Trembling, feeling twitchy
  • Being easily startled
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Headaches

Developing anxiety during old age is twice as common as dementia among seniors.

The cause of GAD is unknown, but researchers believe that genetics are a factor. Contributing factors to the disease are the use of alcohol, caffeine, and even certain prescription medications. The good news is there are proven treatment options for GAD.

Addressing Mental Health Issues in Seniors

Research shows that the stigma associated with mental health issues in seniors are a significant barrier when it comes to finding treatment. The study also found that “depressed older adult participants endorsed a high level of public stigma and were not likely to be currently engaged in, nor did they intend to seek mental health treatment.” Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand. Here are some tips that may be helpful in discussing treatment for anxiety with your loved one:

  • Make seniors feel comfortable when talking about your concern with seeking help for their GAD. Mental health issues should not be a subject of shame.
  • Ask the senior which primary care physician they would like to discuss their anxiety disorder with or if they want help in finding a mental health specialist.
  • Have reasonable goals in mind for your conversation with the senior.
  • What expectations do you have after discussing treatment options with the senior?
  • Be patient with yourself and the senior.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help Your Loved One

If a senior’s anxiety is debilitating, it’s time to talk to their doctor. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered one of the most helpful therapeutic methods for treating GAD. CBT helps patients identify, understand, and change their thinking and behavioral patterns. Studies show CBT can bring long lasting improvement to GAD sufferers, for periods as long as two years after therapy. If the senior is in good health, they will be able to follow up with their weekly assignments and apply the strategies learned in sessions with a licensed psychotherapist.

Medication Versus Therapy for GAD  

Anxiety Medication for SeniorsIs there a “magic pill” that can cure seniors of their anxiety disorder? Learning coping mechanisms during therapy sessions can significantly reduce the risk of the disorder recurring in the future. “Mostly drug” therapy can be effective treatment for patients since they often have a quicker impact on symptoms than therapy, but research shows that a combination of medication and therapy yields the best results.  In one study, patients who mostly received therapy for at least 13 sessions had better results than those whose therapy consisted of “mostly medication.” The most successful patients of all were those who received a balance of drug and talk therapies. They had the advantage of quick improvement with the drugs, followed by steady continuing improvement from the talk.

If a senior is seeking help with GAD, their doctor can provide them with the most effective treatment plan. Here are some important questions that you can ask your loved one’s doctor:

  • What’s your understanding of this problem?
  • What kind of treatments would you recommend and why?
  • How long will it take to experience some relief of symptoms?
  • How long will I need to stay on medication and/or continue with therapy to get the maximum benefit?

Treating GAD with Medication

There are two types of medication prescribed to someone with GAD: anti-anxiety medications and antidepressant medications.

  • Anti-AnxietyAnti-anxiety medications are effective for short term relief. Medications like Clonazepam or Xanax can be powerful with fast acting effects, but are usually not recommended for long term use. Anti-anxiety medications should be taken with caution—if a patient suddenly stops taking their medication, the body can have withdrawal symptoms like high blood pressure, shaking, and increased anxiety. Patients may develop a physical dependence on these types of drugs, though taking them exactly as prescribed can reduce the risk of addiction.
  • Antidepressants—Contrary to fast acting anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants can take weeks to have any effect on your loved one’s mood. While some side effects like headache, nausea, or difficulty sleeping may be present, if dosages start off low, it can be safe and effective for your loved one. It’s important to monitor your loved one closely during the early stages of treatment with an antidepressant. Antidepressants are shown to be effective for long term treatment and most doctors recommend at least a full year of use.

It is important to know the senior’s complete medical history and any medications that they are currently taking to help their doctor decide if there will be any adverse side effects.

Did You Know That Social Isolation and Loneliness Are Associated with Increased Mortality?

Studies show “people who live alone or lack social contacts may be at increased risk of death if acute symptoms develop, because there is less of a network of confidantes to prompt medical attention.” Suffering from GAD may cause seniors to withdraw from activities they once loved and shy away from socialization and interaction and can contribute to a decline in cognitive performance and an increased risk of dementia.

Does Your Loved One Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Our caregivers are companionship professionals and provide exercise assistance to get seniors with generalized anxiety disorder the help they need.

Call us today (973) 538-4357 to learn more about our services!

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Sources:

WebMD

Today’s Geriatric Medicine

NIH

University of Michigan Depression Center

CNN

PNAS