Anxiety Disorders

Frequently Asked Questions

13. Is it difficult to diagnose an anxiety disorder in older adults?

Because anxiety disorders may look different in older adults compared to younger adults, they can be difficult to detect and diagnose. Doctors can have difficulty distinguishing between anxiety caused by adapting to difficult life changes, and a true anxiety disorder. For example, if you fell and broke a hip, you may be justifiably fearful of going out for a while. But that would not mean you have developed an anxiety disorder.

Also, older adults may express their anxiety with a doctor differently than younger adults. For example, they may express anxiety in physical terms such as feeling dizzy or shaky, while younger adults may express it in more psychological terms.

Older adults may also have more difficulty answering complex screening questionnaires if they have diminished cognitive abilities or memory problems.

Sometimes the physical symptoms of other illnesses can get mixed up with the symptoms of anxiety, making it difficult to determine if a person has a true anxiety disorder. For instance, a person with heart disease sometimes has chest pain, which can also be a symptom of a panic disorder.

Muscle tightness, feeling very tense all the time, and difficulty sleeping can also be symptoms of a physical illness or an anxiety disorder, or both, complicating diagnosis. As a result of these complications, doctors may miss the anxiety disorder.