Anxiety in the Elderly

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By Kathy Allen

The American Disorders Association of America states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 40 million adults across the country. Research shows 6.8 million of these adults suffer from an anxiety disorder called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is a condition of chronic worrying. Some of the other symptoms that patients experience are fatigue, rigidity and irritability. "A person with generalized anxiety disorder spends, on average, about 40 hours a week worrying, so it's almost like having a full-time job," Eric J. Lenze, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Ivanhoe. "They worry about very real things, but the inability to put those worries out of their minds makes the condition disabling." Other anxiety disorders include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder and specific phobias.

TREATMENTS: Several drugs are used to treat GAD. The anti-anxiety drug buspirone (Buspar) doesn't completely eliminate the anxiety, but it isn't sedating or addictive. Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax) act very quickly, but physical and psychological dependence are common side effects of the drugs. Some types of antidepressants are also prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of GAD. These drugs can take weeks to change symptoms and can worsen sleep problems and cause nausea. A side-effect free way to deal with GAD is through cognitive behavioral therapy. This kind of therapy is guided by a therapist and helps the patient examine the way he or she looks at the world and identify negative thoughts that contribute to anxiety.

THE STUDY & FINAL PRODUCT: A recent study examined the effects of antidepressants on GAD in adults over 60. Researchers looked into the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which were shown in past studies to improve GAD symptoms in younger people. Researchers were still unsure as to whether or not elderly individuals respond as well to the drugs. They found after 12 weeks of treatment, 68 percent of patients taking escitalopram (Lexapro) had improved, and only 51 percent of those taking the placebo had improved. The main side effect observed in the study was fatigue and sleepiness, which usually disappeared after a few weeks of treatment.

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