Learning to live without anxiety

Joan Daues doesn't seem like she's got a worry in the world, but the former beauty queen says every time she steps on stage, her anxiety takes over. Daues suffers from generalized anxiety disorder. She says people kept telling her not to worry about everything, but it didn't help.

When she competed in the Miss Missouri Senior America pageant, she was able to control her anxiety enough to win the crown, but off stage, her anxiety was all encompassing.

Daues is not alone. One expert estimates one in ten people over the age of 60 is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Dr. Eric Lenze, a psychiatrist with the Washington University School of Medicine says on the average, a person with serious anxiety spends 40 hours a week occupied with their worries.

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include: Insomnia, fatigue, muscle tension and irritability. The constant stress of anxiety alone can increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Dr. Lenze also points out that some of the brain changes that come with aging might predispose some people who are already worriers. That means someone who may have had mild anxiety in their younger adulthood might turn into a chronic worrier as they get older.

Up until now, seniors diagnosed with anxiety disorders were prescribed sedatives, that caused problems like falls and memory loss. Now, doctors are turning to a class of antidepressants called "serotonin reuptake inhibitors", or SSRIs to improve symptoms.

After 12 weeks of taking an SSRI daily, 68 percent of patients said their anxiety was much improved. As for Joan? She worries less and try to be as calm as possible by concentrating on things she loves and learning relaxation techniques.

Doctors explain that the main side effect of the antidepressants is fatigue. But there's also one positive benefit: the drugs also helped lower the patients' blood pressure. Researchers are currently conducting a study to combine one particular SSRI, called Lexapro, along with talk therapy to improve results.

Web Extra Information: Anxiety In The Elderly


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, says. "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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