Mental Illness in the Elderly: Understanding Different Types of Anxiety

Mental illness in the elderly compromises a number of conditions, including depression, manic depression, and schizophrenia. The one condition you may not hear about often, though, is anxiety – which is a mood disorder that, like any other, can be debilitating on a day to day basis. To complicate matters even further, there are many different types of anxiety, as you will see below.

The six kinds of anxiety

The American Psychiatric Association uses The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to identify mental illnesses, including anxiety. According to the most current version of the manual, the six recognized types of anxiety are as follows:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Defined as “the almost constant presence of worry or tension, even when there is little or no cause,” GAD sufferers tend to drift from one worry to the next. These concerns can relate to anything, including health, work, money, relationships, and more.
  • Social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia). Social anxiety disorder is defined as “a persistent and irrational fear of situations that may involve scrutiny or judgment by others, such as parties and other social events.”  Unlike social phobia, other phobias revolve around “an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger.” Common ones include flying, enclosed spaces, and heights.
  • Panic disorders. Panic disorders are “repeated attacks of intense fear that something bad will occur when not expected.” Panic attacks often come on suddenly, lasting anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. At times, the feeling of fear is so intense, it is often mistaken for a heart attack. Although rare among older adults, it is possible for them to suffer from this type of anxiety.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is a push and pull between incessant thoughts (obsessions) and actions taken (compulsions) to reduce or remove these thoughts. One example is the fear of germs that causes a patient to wash their hands over and over. This is another disorder that is uncommon among older adults, although it should not be ruled out until an official diagnosis can be made.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). PTSD is a “potentially debilitating anxiety disorder triggered by a traumatic experience [such as] physical or sexual assault, exposure to disaster or accidents, combat, or witnessing a traumatic event.” A person with PTSD will often re-experience traumatic events in their minds in order to avoid similar ones in the future. Although it is especially common in veterans, PTSD can happen to anyone, and may even show up years after the initial triggering event. PTSD can also appear to improve for long periods of time only to have symptoms reappear later.

You are not alone

If you’re an older adult who suffers from anxiety, or you know one who does, you are not alone. In fact, roughly 10% of those 65 and over have an anxiety disorder, and 15% of those over 65 will develop one as well.
It’s important to realize that anxiety serves a function in nature – to warn or help us escape genuine threats and dangers. However, when anxiety is excessive or is not an appropriate response to perceived danger, it needs to be addressed. It is definitely not a normal part of the aging process. Older adults who suffer from anxiety are at a risk for other illnesses (both physical and mental), falls, permanent disability, isolation, premature mortality, and institutional placement.

Treating mental illness in the elderly

Treating mental illness in the elderly can be a difficult process. Like health conditions in other age groups, caring, support and expert professional guidance is often called for. If the patient suffers from anxiety, it can help to address the issues that exacerbate the condition. These issues can include other health concerns, financial matters, or other day-to-day items. Sometimes counseling and medication are most appropriate way to deal with the problem. But regardless of which path treatment takes, understanding mental illness is the first step towards managing it.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

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