Last week The Mail on Sunday’s GP columnist Dr Ellie Cannon gave an honest account of her 15-year struggle with disabling anxiety.
She told of being plagued by ‘entirely irrational’ feelings of dread, triggering overwhelming nausea, heart palpitations and extreme tiredness.
Antidepressants, which she is taking, have proved ‘incredibly effective’ at keeping symptoms under control.
The article has unleashed a hidden tide of anxiety disorders among older adults.
The Mail on Sunday has received a torrent of readers’ letters, thanking Ellie for highlighting anxiety as a problem that not only affects young people – as is often portrayed.
Some in their late 70s said they’ve felt this way for 40 years and have kept their suffering from loved-ones for fear of embarrassment.
Others resisted taking medication for years, before finding them helpful.
‘Why I suffer with anxiety, I do not know. I had a lovely childhood, so there is nothing I can look back on and blame,’ wrote Val Bradshaw, 72.
‘I started taking antidepressants 30 years ago and have been on and off them since. I used to feel ashamed that I was on medication but it allows me to live a normal life.’
Carol Townsend, 77, said she’d spent much of her life on ‘red alert’, for no good reason.
Dr Ellie Cannon gave an honest account of her 15-year struggle with disabling anxiety last week. She told of being plagued by ‘entirely irrational’ feelings of dread, triggering overwhelming nausea, heart palpitations and extreme tiredness. (Pictured: Dr Ellie Cannon appeared on This Morning earlier this month to tell Holly and Phil about her experiences taking anti-depressants and why there is no shame in seeking help)
It wasn’t until a decade ago that she decided to visit her GP for help.
‘I spoke to a psychiatrist friend who told me there was no shame in taking tablets – and to go to the doctors.
‘For ten years I have been on a low dose of Citalopram [common anti-anxiety medication] and have been on an even keel. I can cope well with things and am so much happier. Life is good.’
Top experts were ‘not surprised’ by the number of older Britons battling anxiety – thought to affect one in six people.
‘Anxiety is a very common problem we see in older patients. Medication to treat anxiety and depression is among the most common I prescribe,’ says Dr Clare Gerarda, a GP specialising in psychiatry.
‘As you get older, you’re more likely to suffer serious health conditions and the stress of physical illness often triggers mental health problems.
‘Older people are also more likely to be carers, or have anxiety-inducing responsibilities, compared with younger folk.’
Many who wrote to Dr Ellie associated the onset of their anxious feelings with caring responsibilities.
One 59-year-old who began taking medication earlier this year – after a decade of suffering – said supporting her mother through throat cancer ‘fuelled’ her anxiety.
Others became anxious while nursing a partner following a life-changing stroke, or diagnosis of dementia.
Top experts were ‘not surprised’ by the number of older Britons battling anxiety – thought to affect one in six people (file photo)
In studies, women aged 16-24 appear to be the most affected, with roughly 15 per cent of the age-group reporting symptoms, according to NHS England data.
But experts say anxiety in older people is ‘vastly underestimated’.
‘It is a huge problem, as much as depression and dementia,’ says Dr Robert Howard, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at University College London.
‘It sounds trivial but it isn’t – often patients are inconsolable. Older people are also embarrassed to talk about it, so it is under-recognised.’
Experts say since the pandemic struck, more people over 65 than ever are struggling.
Data from the Office for National Statistics in November last year found a third of over 60s were suffering high levels of anxiety.
A subsequent poll of 1,300 older adults by the charity Age UK found that 40 per cent of older women said they felt more anxious post-pandemic, as did 27 per cent of men.
The most common form of anxiety is Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which causes patients to feel anxious most of the time, unrelated to one specific event.
It is thought to affect roughly six per cent of the population – although only one in ten are diagnosed, according to studies.
The NHS-recommended treatment is a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps patients cope with the thoughts that make them anxious, and antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
While many readers told of being prescribed pills, few spoke of being offered therapy.
‘Historically, it has been difficult to get older people into therapy, because of stigma and embarrassment,’ says Prof Howard.
‘But that is changing. Older people are now just as open to talking about their feelings as younger people, especially if they are heading towards the end of their life.’
Prof Howard says access to therapy is the more likely barrier.
According to the latest NHS figures, 1.6million Britons are on waiting lists for specialist therapy.
A further eight million will be suffering but deemed ‘not sick enough’ to be prioritised for treatment, according to NHS Providers.
Studies show mixed results for the effectiveness of antidepressants for anxiety – the figure can be as low as a third.
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‘Ideally, I wouldn’t prescribe medication for anxiety. It only tends to work if there’s also a depression element, too,’ says Prof Howard.
But judging by readers’ letters, when they do work – they work well.
Mike Scott, 58, wrote: ‘I have been on amitriptyline [an older type of antidepressant known as a tricyclic] for 20 years.
‘It has been a life changer. Not only has it helped my anxiety, but it’s also reduced my migraines.When I’ve tried to reduce my dose, my migraines come back.’
It’s important that patients, especially those in older age, are frequently monitored. Studies show that older people are more at risk of serious side effects, such as raised blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms.
But regular blood tests can flag up signs of this before it becomes serious, and doctors can adjust doses accordingly,’ says Prof Howard. Generally speaking, only SSRIs should be prescribed for anxiety, he says.
Yet, readers speak of different medications, such as Diazepam and Oxazepam, with less favourable outcomes.
One man, who has suffered anxiety for 30 years, said Oxazepam left him shaking and ‘unable to do basic tasks’.
Others spoke of exhaustion and becoming addicted. Prof Howard said these ‘outdated’ treatments are prescribed too often.
‘Twenty or 30 years ago, if someone was anxious, doctors would prescribe these drugs, called benzodiazepines, which are used for insomnia and seizures, due to their sedative effect.
‘But we now know they stop working after a while and patients can become hooked. They also have a paradoxical effect, worsening anxiety in the long run.
But Prof Howard says a new type of psychological therapy is showing promise and may soon be more widely available.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which helps patients identify and change behaviours that unknowingly exacerbate anxiety – has shown to be highly effective in a number of studies.
A 2019 Australian review of 20 studies found a digital course of ACT significantly improved anxious symptoms in 18 of the trials, while other studies show the effects last at least six months.
Prof Howard says: ‘It’s not that it’s better than CBT but it means in cases where it doesn’t work, there’s another option.
‘As doctors, that’s all we can hope for – offering something when all else fails.’