If you are under 65, your next checkup may include another screening — one for anxiety.
A panel of medical experts is for the first time recommend that adults under the age of 65 are screened annually by their primary care physician for the increasingly common mental illness, even if they have no symptoms.
This can help identify an anxiety disorder early on so people can connect with care, Lori Pbert, a member of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, said in a statement on the group’s draft recommendation, posted Sept. 20. . The public has until October 17 to comment. on the proposed guidelines before they become final.
“This, I think, is much needed and way overdue,” says Robert Hudak, MD, a psychiatrist at the Western Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the United States. About 15 percent of adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Previous federal data shows that about 20 percent of American adults have an anxiety disorder. And the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, causing cases to rise above these estimates, both in the US and abroad. show studies.
“I really think the COVID pandemic has shed light on the impact that everyday stress and anxiety can have on people,” said Lauren Gerlach, a geriatric psychiatrist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School.
A CDC report found that between August 2020 and February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent.
The numbers have declined somewhat since the height of the pandemic, says Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in New York City. But there are still plenty of lingering stressors that can affect anxiety levels, such as the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 or economic hardship, she says.
Despite its prevalence, anxiety often goes unrecognized in primary care, says the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and few providers look for it. But checking for warning signs in patients who don’t show obvious symptoms can “significantly increase the likelihood of patients receiving timely treatment, potentially saving years of suffering,” the USPSTF says.
If left untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to a number of other health problems. For example, individuals may have trouble functioning normally at home, at work or in their relationships, Saltz points out. “And of course, leaving that alone for any length of time has real implications for a person’s ability to stay involved with family, with friends, with work, career advancement, all that,” she says.
Untreated anxiety can also lead to clinical depression and can affect everything from blood pressure to stomach ulcers to chronic pain disorders. In addition, it can cause high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, to circulate in the body. “And we know that chronically high levels of circulating cortisol have deleterious effects on the body and brain,” Saltz says. (Excessive exposure to cortisol can increase a person’s risk of heart disease and problems with memory and concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic.)