While there are several factors that can cause anxiety in older adults, it can be difficult to identify because they express anxiety in unique ways, according to an expert at Baylor College of Medicine.

Common types of anxiety disorders in older adults include generalized anxiety, specific fears and phobias, social phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr. Melinda Stanley, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at BCM.

Identifying disorder

"It is difficult to identify an anxiety disorder in older adults because they are less likely to use psychological terms such as 'worry' or 'anxiety' and are more likely to describe their experiences as 'concerns' and 'nerves.'"

In addition, older adults also tend to focus more on physical symptoms that are associated with anxiety rather than emotional symptoms, and an anxiety disorder can be overlooked as the cause, said Stanley, who is also an investigator in the Health Services Research and Development Center of Excellence at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Fears unique to seniors

Changes that occur with increasing age can cause anxiety, said Stanley. This includes changes in work and social roles, increasing health problems and decreased decision making capacity. Fears that are unique to older adults, such as the fear of falling or losing one's independence, can also increase anxiety levels.

Anxiety symptoms that older adults and their family members should watch for include shortness of breath, increased heart rate, dizziness, difficulty sleeping and muscle aches and pains.

Anxiety is not a normal part of aging and can be treated. The first important step is to have a good physical exam to determine whether any health problems exist.

Managing anxiety

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a treatment option that teaches learning skills to manage anxiety. Skills that can help reduce anxiety include relaxation, changing thoughts, facing fears, learning how to solve problems and learning behaviors to improve sleep.

"Slow and deep breathing is an important skill for reducing anxiety," said Stanley. "Staying active is an important coping skill, as is eating well, getting enough rest and keeping alcohol use under control."