Older Adults Less Anxious Than Younger Adults in Social Situations, but Comparably Anxious When Threat Is Physical, U.Va. Study Shows

October 15, 2009 — Research on anxiety levels of older adults has largely been neglected, but a new University of Virginia study has found that older adults are less anxious than younger adults in challenging social situations. However, that age difference disappears when older adults perceive a threat to their health.

"We are trying to get a better understanding of how the aging process influences emotional reactions and the ability of older people to regulate their emotions," said Bethany Teachman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study.

"This has important implications for understanding how people function in their everyday lives, and also for the prevention and treatment of emotional disorders such as anxiety and mood problems."

Teachman specializes in studying the factors that affect the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders.

Her most recent finding, published this month in the journal Psychology and Aging, indicates that older people experience less anxiety than younger adults in situations that do not involve perceived physical threats, but experience comparable anxiety when their physical health seems threatened.

"We wanted to see how anxiety expresses differently in older and younger adults in a variety of situations," Teachman said.

The situations were in two broad categories, social and physical.

The social stressor required both older and younger study participants to give a public speech. They were monitored for indications of stress and anxiety and they later gave an account of how they felt during their speech.

Older adults experienced less anxiety in these situations than younger adults.

The physical stressor phase of the testing required study participants to breathe through a thin straw, and also to repeatedly and rapidly attempt to blow out an imaginary candle for 60 seconds. These activities cause mild physical sensations, such as dizziness, tingling and numbness, hot flushes and sweating.

Teachman is looking for volunteer participants for a variety of studies to understand thought processes and emotional reactions among older and younger adults.

She and her colleagues are trying to determine what is different about thinking and feeling among older adults, and are comparing what they find with the reactions of younger adults.

They are seeking participants from the general population who are between the ages of 18 and 35, and ages 65 and older. Participants will be tested during a single 90-minute session. Compensation is $15.

For information, call 434-243-5555.

In this case, normal age differences disappear, based on physical monitoring and a survey, suggesting that older adults' usual ability to react with less anxiety than younger adults disappears with a physical stressor.

"We think that's because for the older adults the physical stressors are particularly relevant to the concerns of older adults, because of potentially real threats regarding losses in physical functioning," Teachman said.

Though fear is normal during dangerous or threatening situations, and is indeed a survival mechanism, an exaggerated state of fear or anxiety in relatively nonthreatening everyday situations can become a debilitating disorder.

"As we continue to do this research, we hope to get a better understanding of what things change as people age that allow them to be protected from emotional difficulties versus becoming more vulnerable," Teachman said.

"If we can better understand what triggers emotional distress as people age, we can develop better interventions and treatments. It's not a one-size fits all model of treatment or of understanding emotional life."

— By Fariss Samarrai