Research — 06 June 2016

They have the world at their feet, but a new study suggests the young and rich are more likely to be crippled by anxiety than the old and poor.

A global analysis has found that people younger than 35 are more vulnerable to anxiety dis­orders than their elders.

The Cambridge University research also found Westerners were disproportionately affected, with North Americans experiencing anxiety at twice the worldwide average.

The study, published this morning in the journal Brain and Behaviour, evaluated an anxiety epidemic sweeping the world. Conditions such as agoraphobia, panic disorder and social anxiety are thought to affect more than three million Australians and 60 million Europeans every year, claiming almost 30 million ­person-years in lost productivity and costing more than $58 billion ($78.7bn) in the US alone.

Anxiety disorders contribute to unemployment, trigger hospital visits, hamper recovery from illnesses and increase suicide risk.

“(They) make life ­extremely difficult for some people,” said first author Olivia Remes, a Cambridge PhD candid­ate. “It is important for our health services to understand how common they are and which groups of people are at greatest risk.”

The researchers synthesised the available information on anxiety disorders, in a review of the reviews. They identified more than 1200 systematic analyses, crunching data from 48 of them.

Ms Remes told The Australian young people tended to be ­exposed to more “anxiety-­provoking” situations than their elders, and there was evidence that ­internet addiction was ­exacerbating the problem among the young.

The breakdown revealed that under-35s were disproportionately affected by anxiety in every country except Pakistan, “where midlife represents a period of high burden”. Women were almost twice as affected as men, and North Americans almost three times as vulnerable as East Asians.

But she said illness could be masking the symptoms of anxiety in older people, who were more likely to experience it as dizziness and nausea, while younger people were more prone to excessive worrying.

Ms Remes said cultural differences could also explain the greater anxiety rates in the west. “The tools we use to measure anxiety disorders were developed on western populations, but anxiety might be manifested differently in other cultures,” she said. For example, social anxiety tended to manifest itself as high self-consciousness in the west but excessive fear of embarrassing others in the east.

The study also found anxiety was a double-whammy for people with other health issues, including heart disease, cancer and even pregnancy. Around one-tenth of adults with cardiovascular disease, one-seventh of diabetics, one-quarter of cancer patients and one-third of people with multiple sclerosis also suffered from anxiety.

The review found that pregnant women were twice as likely as the general population to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ms Remes said this could be triggered by a spike in progesterone and oestrogen levels, which influence mood, as well as a heightened sense of responsibility.

The study listed indigenous Australians among the groups for whom more research into anxiety disorder was needed.

This article first appeared on ‘The Australian’ on 6 June 2016.

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