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date: 05 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

Anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent and understudied mental health problems in late life. Specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder are the most prevalent anxiety disorders in older adults among the 11 disorders identified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fifth edition). Anxiety disorders lead to significant functional burdens and interface with physical health problems and cognitive impairment, concerns frequently experienced in adults over age 65. Additional contextual factors should be considered when assessing and treating late-life anxiety, including the effects of polypharmacy, other mental health conditions, role changes, and societal attitudes toward aging. The relationship between anxiety and physical health problems in older adults can be causal or contextual, and can involve poorer estimates of subjective health and lower ratings of functioning. These factors present unique challenges to the detection, conceptualization, and treatment of late-life anxiety, including the tendency for older adults to focus on somatic symptoms and the potential for long-term behaviors that can mask distress such as substance use. Researchers are increasingly incorporating a gerodiversity framework to understand the contributions of cultural, individual, and other group differences that may affect the presentation of anxiety symptoms and disorders. Older adults in general are less likely to be treated for anxiety disorders, and intersecting individual and group differences likely further affect how anxiety disorders are perceived by healthcare providers. Cognitive behavioral therapy and its variants have the most empirical support for treatment. Newer evidence lends support to acceptance and commitment therapy and problem-solving therapy, which tend to address some of the contextual factors that may be important in treatment.

Keywords: late-life anxiety, fear, generalized anxiety disorder, panic, social anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy

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