New ways to treat senior citizen anxiety

We all worry about things, but some worry more than others. In fact, for some senior citizens, it can turn into anxiety disorders.

But doctors have come up with a new treatment that could help millions of people relax.

Bills. Money. Spouse. Your car. Your home. Your kids. For some people, like Joan Daues, the worrying never ends.

"People kept saying to me, 'Joan, don't worry about that. Don't worry about this,'" she recalls.

This former Miss Missouri Senior America suffers from generalized anxiety disorder. Although she was able to control her anxiety to win the crown, off stage, her anxiety was all-encompassing.

But Joan is not alone. One in 10 people over age 60 is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

"On average, a person with generalized anxiety disorder spends 40 hours per week occupied with their worries," says Dr. Eric Lenze, a geriatric psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Symptoms include insomnia, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability. The stress can increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

"Some brain changes with aging may predispose some people to have those worries be more chronic," Dr. Lenze explains.

Until now, seniors diagnosed with anxiety disorders were prescribed sedative drugs that could cause problems such as falls and memory loss. Now, doctors are turning to serotonin reuptake inhibitors -- or anti-depressants -- to improve symptoms.

After 12 weeks of taking the drug daily, 68 percent of patients said their anxiety was much improved. As for Joan, she worries less.

"I just want to try to be as calm and as easy to live with as possible," Joan says.

Besides the obvious benefit of helping people relax, the drugs also helped lower blood pressure.

Researchers are currently conducting a study to combine this medication with talk therapy to improve outcomes.



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.


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.


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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