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Health Discovery

Feeling Anxious? You’re Not Alone

A new study reveals that anxiety disorders—such as panic attacks, irrational fears and exaggerated worry and tension—are twice as common as depression among middle-age and older people. Depression in older people tends to get more attention than anxiety, which is ignored in part because it can be tricky to spot.

The study looked at the rate of psychological disorders in a sample of 2,575 adults age 55 and older.

In the year leading up to the study, 12 percent of those surveyed had suffered from panic attacks, irrational fears called phobias, excessive or unusual tension, or posttraumatic stress disorder, which is often triggered by a death or a frightening event. Researchers found that 5 percent of the group had experienced major depression or bipolar disorder. Another 3 percent had experienced a combination of anxiety along with depression or bipolar disorder. Women were about twice as likely as men to have had any of these problems.

Interviewers asked the subjects a series of questions, which doctors then interpreted to determine whether they had the disorders. Amy L. Byers of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and colleagues reported their findings in the May issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The incidence of anxiety, and the accompanying stress, worry and fears, was greater than the researchers expected—particularly the frequency of phobias, such as fear of heights. Health experts have focused on late-life depression rather than anxiety, in part because anxiety is harder to diagnose, Byers says. Phobias are the most commonly overlooked anxieties, she says.

Psychiatrist Nicholas Schor, M.D., who specializes in treating older people, says one common sign of anxiety is making excessive doctor visits. People with anxiety also avoid whatever they fear. Someone with a social phobia—extreme shyness—will make up excuses to avoid going to parties or social occasions, for example.

Treatment for anxiety includes psychotherapy, medication or both. Therapy involves “gently encouraging people to confront the scary thing,” Schor says. Antidepressants may help as well. Some doctors will prescribe sedatives, “but there’s a variety of opinions on how prudent it is to use them,” he says. They can be habit forming, affect balance and cause daytime sleepiness.

But this might help you relax: The study confirmed that older people are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than their younger peers.

Tina Adler writes about health and science.

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