As we age, we change - in our bodies and in our minds as well as in the things we worry about. And as we get older, many of us face new and emotionally taxing personal challenges, like sudden health problems, chronic medical conditions, and the loss of friends and loved ones.

With all of these new stresses to contend with, older adults may also develop anxiety disorders. Though rates decline with age, anxiety disorders - especially phobias and generalized anxiety disorders - are common among older adults. Your risk of anxiety disorders may be increased if you are a woman; if you are single, divorced, or widowed; and/or if you have gone through a traumatic life event. You are also at higher risk if you're managing a chronic medical condition, like depression, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, or diabetes, or if you have limited physical mobility.

Day-to-day stress can weigh on an older person's mental health and increase anxiety risk, bringing worries like financial instability and loneliness caused by isolation from friends and family. Fears may multiply, too, due to such things as an increased risk of falls due to decreased mobility, and increased vulnerability to victimization due to changes in memory and cognition.

Whatever the cause of an older person's anxiety or what is keeping it from being diagnosed, it is important that anxiety disorders be treated. Untreated anxiety disorders can lead to depression, making a potentially debilitating combination. Anxiety can also interfere with memory.

The goal of anxiety disorder treatment is to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life and functioning. And the treatment options for older adults' anxiety disorders are similar to those for younger people - anti-anxiety medication, therapy, or a combination of the two. A geriatric psychiatrist might be recommended, as these medical doctors are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illness in older adults.

Unfortunately, some older adults never receive the treatment they need. This could be due to the challenges of diagnosing anxiety disorders in older adults. For one thing, older adults are more likely to have co-existing medical conditions or health problems with symptoms that are hard to distinguish from anxiety symptoms. Medications used can cause side effects that trigger or resemble anxiety symptoms. Older adults may also experience changes in memory or cognition that affect their ability to keep track of their anxiety symptoms and report them to their doctor.

Another reason a person may not seek treatment may be because they have not made a connection between their physical symptoms of anxiety and the emotional symptoms they experience. Some older adults may have had anxiety disorders for many decades and never considered their feelings anything but normal. Still other older adults are resistant to having their mental health evaluated. In some instances, a person's anxiety disorder may be masked by alcohol or substance abuse or by particularly troubling life situations, like complicated or chronic grief.

If you suspect that you or someone you care about may have an anxiety disorder, be on the lookout for the following signs:

  • changes in mood: excessive worry or fear, tearfulness, nervousness
  • changes in routine: avoidance of certain situations, reluctance to go out
  • changes in behaviour and habits: drinking more alcohol, checking or rechecking things, being overly preoccupied with sticking to routine
  • changes in medication: new medication or change of dosage, missing or skipping doses
  • physical symptoms: sweating, trembling, shallow breathing, racing heartbeat

Share your concerns with your doctor. Your doctor can perform examinations or tests necessary to rule out other possible causes of anxiety-like symptoms or behaviour changes and make referrals for therapy if necessary.