Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Does anxiety get worse with age? You’re not the first person to wonder this.
Anxiety isn’t something that just goes away on its own — most people understand that. Only with time, practice and the support of a mental health professional can you deal with anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions.
But if it doesn’t get better over time on its own, can the opposite happen? And if so, why does anxiety get worse with age?
Most things do get worse with age, as you’re probably aware. You’re also probably aware of mental health conditions like dementia, which tend to affect people as they age.
While dementia isn’t a normal part of aging (the normal stuff includes weakening muscles, stiffening arteries and bones becoming more brittle), it’s an example of what bad things could begin to happen to the brain over time.
But anxiety is quite different from dementia and other age-related illnesses. It doesn’t have to get worse with age, the same way a houseplant doesn’t have to die.
To prevent a houseplant from dying, though, it needs to be cared for properly and regularly.
Let’s start with some basics about anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of uncertainty or fear about a perceived danger. It’s a healthy system when it’s functioning normally, but excessive anxiety can become a disorder if it affects your ability to perform in daily life.
Anxiety disorders can occur at any time in your life. Certain things can increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder, which is why they can happen in childhood, adolescence, adulthood and even in your older years.
The types of anxiety disorders you’re likely to get change based on your age. In fact, anxiety disorders that tend to trigger more severe physical responses (think panic attacks) are typically more common in youth and middle age than in later years, according to most literature. This includes disorders like panic disorder.
The hypothesis is that anxiety is ultimately an autonomic — or involuntary — response system. As we get older, our autonomic systems are less responsive, and ones like the fight-or-flight response are less engaged.
In other words, anxiety in older adults is more likely to present as worry, whereas in younger people, anxiety symptoms of panic and fear dominate.
In this way, some types of anxiety are actually worse with age. But in practice, increasing anxiety with age is an exception to the rule.
Anxiety across your lifespan is common, although prevalence rates decline later in life. Among the older population, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common types of anxiety.
Just because anxiety happens most commonly to older people doesn’t necessarily mean the condition is correlated with age.
Age and anxiety aren’t actually natural bedfellows. You’re not more likely to become more anxious or more severely anxious because you’re aging.
What’s responsible for mental health symptoms isn’t a number on your driver’s license but rather the decline in your ability to drive your body and brain effectively. Older people may also have to deal with comorbid and complicating conditions, like cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease, which aren’t normal parts of aging.
You’ve likely heard an older person mention these hard facts — or maybe you just saw a relatable meme about it. But if there’s one thing we can tell you, it’s that most things can get worse as we age.
Back pain? Wait ten years. Slow metabolism? Imagine what it’ll look like in another decade. Wrinkles? Preventable up to a point but unavoidable if you live a long time.
Anxiety disorders can also be tied to declining health or new health issues. So if a person is struggling with mobility, taking more medications or experiencing sleep issues, they can increase their risk of mental health issues — and anxiety is no different.
If we had to boil this down to a simple explanation, it’s this: Anxiety isn’t a foregone conclusion as we age, but a lot of the impacts of aging on our bodies and brains can increase your associated risk factors for anxiety.
What happens to your body typically mirrors what happens to your mind — take care of one, and the other will see benefits. In other words, anxiety doesn’t have to get worse with age, but it definitely can, especially if the rest of your body and mind aren’t doing so hot.
So how much does age increase your risk of an anxiety disorder? How many people are more anxious because of their age? It’s very hard to say.
Statistics show that approximately 20 percent of people over age 55 experience mental health issues of some kind, be it depression, anxiety or something else.
Because of the increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s in older age (not to mention other diseases and injuries that may decrease mobility and social health), people are more likely to be at risk for mental health issues. But older people also tend to be at risk of another key issue: refusing to ask for help.
One of the biggest issues with determining if the average older person is having mental health issues like anxiety disorders is the general unwillingness to tell anyone what’s going on. Some experts believe up to 30 percent of people with depression don’t seek treatment for it. See the problem?
According to the CDC, isolation and the loneliness that can sometimes (but not always) lead to it are a problem for older people. In fact, isolation is associated with higher rates of anxiety. Again, it’s not the numbers themselves but what happens as they increase.
So if we can’t prevent the numbers from increasing, what can we do to prevent anxiety and worsening anxiety as we age?
One thing you can do for others is support them and check in on them — and maybe encourage them to visit their primary care provider more regularly. Remember that isolation problem? Well, making friends with older people who seem isolated and checking in on the ones in your own life is a great way to pitch in.
Another way to prevent anxiety for yourself or someone else is to help them stay healthy. This means involving them in activities, helping them get screened for signs of mental illness or cognitive decline and making sure they get checked regularly for other health issues.
Experts generally agree that mental health issues in older people can lead to physical decline, which can then extend cognitive decline, and so on in a downward spiral. As we said, older people tend not to ask for help or freely share concerns, making the job of effective assessment more challenging.
If you’re having trouble assessing the mental health of someone you love, it may be time to involve a healthcare provider in those conversations.
They might be offered medication for chronic anxiety (which you can learn more about here) or be offered therapy for anxiety, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Either way, starting the search for a treatment plan is a great first step and a major hurdle cleared.
As we age, things get harder. Technology, mobility and music trends can all leave us lagging behind, sometimes literally.
But before you go accepting some worst-case scenario for your old age fate, consider these closing points:
Mental health doesn’t have to decline when you get older.
You can reduce your risks of mental health issues later in life if you’re willing to care for your mental health throughout your life.
You should take preemptive steps to reduce your risk of anxiety, like caring for your health, protecting your sleep and seeking therapy when you’re struggling.
If medication is an option, consider the benefits — and take it.
If you’re not sure where to find treatment for anxiety disorders and mental health disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), consider working with us.
Our online therapy platform is a great place to try talk therapy and discuss options for medication, and our mental health resources can help you learn about your condition and get answers, medication and other support.
Whatever you do, do it now, before you’re too old to make meaningful changes. When it comes to mental health and physical health, it’s better to prevent serious illness than to treat it after it occurs.
Explore anxiety treatment options at Hers today.
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