Anxiety afflicts young women more than other groups, review finds

June 7, 2016 Providence Health Team

Women under 35 in North America and Western Europe are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men or older people, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.

The researchers reached this conclusion and others after reviewing 48 studies on anxiety from around the world.

Anxiety disorders can cover a range of traits and behaviors, and they can be debilitating. The authors of the review, published in the journal Brain and Behavior, define them as “excess worry, hyperarousal and a fear that is counterproductive,” including a tendency to avoid potentially stressful situations such as social gatherings.

Anxiety disorders also can cause:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Trouble sleeping
  • More severe mood disorders
  • Substance abuse

The researchers also noted a connection between anxiety disorders and such diseases as congestive heart failure, respiratory disease and cancer. 

Review author Olivia Remes, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Public Health and Primary Care, said anxiety disorders “can make life extremely difficult for some people.”

"There has been a lot of focus on depression -- which is important -- but anxiety is equally important and debilitating,” she told the BBC. “It can lead to the development of other diseases and psychiatric disorders, increase the risk for suicide and is associated with high costs to society."

Women are almost twice as likely to be affected by anxiety disorders as men, and women and men under 35 are “disproportionately affected,” researchers said. In the U.S., researchers estimate the annual cost of anxiety disorders at $42.3 million.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder and pregnancy

The review also noted that pregnant women are roughly twice as likely as the general population to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder that manifests itself in compulsive and repeated behaviors. The rate was slightly higher among women just after pregnancy.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of OCD may include:

  • Fear of germs, leading to excessive cleaning or hand-washing
  • A compulsion to arrange items symmetrically or in a perfectly ordered way
  • Repeated checking on things, such as a locked door or the controls of an oven
  • Compulsive counting
  • Unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion and harm
  • Aggressive thoughts toward others or self

More studies needed

The reviewers winnowed their examination to the most relevant studies of anxiety disorders, sometimes in the context of chronic diseases and neurological disorders. While the researchers were able to draw some conclusions, they said more research is needed, particularly to examine the reach of anxiety disorders among indigenous and marginalized populations, as well as people in non-English-speaking regions of the world.

Said Louise Lafortune, M.D., senior research associate at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health: “Anxiety disorders affect a lot of people and can lead to impairment, disability, and risk of suicide. Although many groups have examined this important topic, significant gaps in research remain.”

The anxiety disorders review may be found here. An article on the author’s page at the University of Cambridge is here.

If you are concerned about an anxiety disorder or recognize that you may have one, talk to your health care provider about your concerns. You can find a Providence provider here.

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