If you’re under 65, your next check-up could include a new screening — one for anxiety.
A panel of medical experts is recommending, for the first time, that adults under the age of 65 be screened annually by their GP for the increasingly common mental illness, even if they have no symptoms.
This can help identify an anxiety disorder early so people can be associated with caregiving, said Lori Pbert, a member of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, in a statement on the group’s draft recommendation released Sept. 20. The public has until October 17 to comment on the proposed guidelines before they are finalized.
“In my opinion, this is urgently needed and overdue,” says Dr. Robert Hudak, psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 15 percent of adults reported experiencing anxiety symptoms in 2019. Previous federal data shows that about 20 percent of US adults have an anxiety disorder. And the pandemic has only made the problem worse, with cases both in the US and abroad topping those estimates, studies show.
“I truly believe that the COVID pandemic has shed some light on the effects that daily stress and anxiety can have on people,” says Lauren Gerlach, 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 disorder or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent.
The numbers have declined somewhat since the peak of the pandemic, says Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College and psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in New York City. But there are still many ongoing stressors that can affect anxiety levels, like the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 or economic hardship, she says.
Despite its prevalence, anxiety often goes unrecognized in primary care, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says, and few providers are looking for it. But checking for warning signs in patients who do not have clear symptoms could “substantially increase the likelihood that patients will receive timely treatment, potentially avoiding years of suffering,” says the USPSTF.
Left untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to a variety of other health problems. For example, individuals may have trouble functioning normally at home, at work, or in their relationships, Saltz points out. “And going off that path for an extended period of time obviously has a real impact on a person’s ability to engage with their family, with friends, with work, with career development and all of that,” she says.
Untreated anxiety can also lead to clinical depression, affecting 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 cortisol levels have damaging effects on the body and the brain,” says Saltz. (Excessive exposure to cortisol can increase a person’s risk of heart disease and problems with memory and concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic.)