Does Anxiety Get Worse with Age?

Medically reviewed by Dr. Mark Hrymoc, M.D.

Does anxiety get worse with age? Anxiety doesn’t necessarily worsen with age, but older adults may experience increased anxiety due to factors like health issues, loss of loved ones, or changes in living situations. Treatment and coping strategies can help manage anxiety, but it’s essential to consider individual circumstances to understand how age may affect it.

Anxiety is normal and can sometimes be a good thing. Anxiety can motivate you to seek safety in a dangerous situation. For some, anxiety occurs for no apparent reason. Or something that may cause others to feel only slightly anxious causes you to feel an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. You may start sweating, feel your muscles tense, and notice your heart racing. You may even begin to panic.

Symptoms like these can happen at any age. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that nearly 32% of adolescents between 13 and 18 and 19% of adults over 18 struggle with an anxiety disorder. In addition, over 15% of older adults over 65 have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. Almost all reports on age and anxiety show that the group most affected by anxiety is adolescents, followed by adults and older adults.

Such reports suggest that adults over 60 are the least affected by anxiety and that anxiety is not a normal part of aging. However, they may be missing some crucial factors.

Does anxiety get worse with age?

Anxiety doesn’t necessarily worsen with age for everyone, but some older adults may experience an increase in anxiety symptoms. This can be linked to various factors including chronic health issues, cognitive decline, loss of loved ones, or fears related to aging and independence. Additionally, physiological changes that accompany aging might affect how anxiety is experienced and managed. A supportive network and appropriate medical care can help manage anxiety in older individuals.

Older Adults and Undiagnosed Anxiety

Many older adults with anxiety symptoms go undiagnosed simply because they do not tell their doctor or loved ones about them. Below are some common reasons an aging person may not report their anxiety:

  • They do not know that what they are experiencing is anxiety. 
  • They still have stigmas related to seeking mental health treatment. 
  • They feel embarrassed.
  • They relate their symptoms to something else, like a medical condition.
  • They think their symptoms are a part of aging.

Older Adults Are Misdiagnosed

Doctors never intend to misdiagnose someone, especially someone with anxiety. Unfortunately, there is not a specific test to help them diagnose a mental health disorder, only feedback from the patient. Your symptoms can’t be diagnosed or treated if you don’t report your symptoms.

Even when someone does report their symptoms, a doctor may unintentionally misdiagnose them. Reasons include:

  • They think the symptoms are related to a physical health condition.
  • They believe the symptoms are side effects of the medication they prescribed.
  • They mistake the symptoms for similar conditions.

The physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety mimic other conditions. For example, a doctor may mistake chest pains from panic attacks for a cardiac event. They may think anxiety-produced digestive issues are irritable bowel syndrome, and more, including:

  • Dizziness and headaches for inflammatory diseases
  • Shortness of breath and chest pains for respiratory disorders
  • Cognitive decline for dementia or Alzheimer’s

Symptoms Change as You Age

Anxiety symptoms a teenager experiences can differ from those of adults and older persons because anxiety triggers differ. Your symptoms can intensify if you have had anxiety for a while and have not yet been treated. For many, the symptoms begin to interfere with the ability to function at home, work, or socially. 

Worsening anxiety may appear in one or more of the following ways:

  • Decreases your quality of life because it prevents you from participating in activities and events you once enjoyed.
  • Impairs your memory and concentration, making it challenging to complete essential tasks at home and work. 
  • Weakens your immune system, making it harder for you to fight infections and viruses. You may feel as if you are always catching a cold or fighting off a virus.
  • Increases your chances of developing co-occurring mental health disorders, like depression, eating disorders, or substance use disorders.
  • Interferes with getting quality, restorative sleep, making it hard for your body to heal. You lack energy and feel tired much of the time.

Causes of Anxiety as You Age

As you age, the number of negative life experiences can increase. Losing loved ones, developing life-changing physical ailments, medication side effects, limited mobility, loss of independence, and financial troubles are great examples of negative life experiences.

Risk factors that make it more likely to have anxiety as you age include genetics, biology, living environment, relationship problems, and misusing alcohol or drugs. Lacking positive influences, including family and friends, can trigger anxiety in some people.

Common Anxiety Disorders Among the Aging

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common mental illness among older adults, who may spend much of their time worrying about whether something bad will happen. They may hear loved ones say, “You worry too much,” or “You seem nervous.” They feel overwhelmed by their fear.

Other anxiety disorders common to older adults include the following:

  • Social anxiety disorder is like GAD but occurs mainly when other people are involved. Social events make them feel extremely nervous, and they may worry that they will embarrass themselves.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when someone has not dealt with past trauma, and the symptoms interfere with sleep and other daily functions.
  • Specific phobias occur when someone has an extreme fear of an object, person, or place. Snakes, spiders, flying on an airplane, or heights are examples of phobias. 
  • Panic Disorder is recurrent panic attacks where someone feels intense physical and psychological symptoms.

Treatment for Anxiety as You Age

Working with a team of mental health professionals who collaborate with your doctors, nurses, family, and other resources to provide an effective treatment plan that eases anxiety. A psychiatrist can help you determine if medications will be beneficial. They can also complete a comprehensive assessment to see if you receive all the necessary care.

Licensed psychologists or therapists can provide cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT), trauma-focused CBT, stress management, and other therapeutic methods to help you find the source of your anxiety and work through it.

To ensure you get a correct diagnosis, start documenting when you feel anxious, what triggers it, your symptoms, and how you were able to get past it. Note the severity level as mild, moderate, or severe. List all the medications you are taking, including over-the-counter vitamins and supplements. Share this information with your mental health therapist or psychiatrist.

Contact the Mental Health Center for an appointment with a mental health professional who can review your information and use it to diagnose and treat your symptoms correctly.