Far from all people with psychological problems obtain care and treatment. The best way to gauge the extent of such conditions is to look at the general population.
“We found that a majority of the elderly, particularly women, have some kind of phobia,” says Robert Sigström, a researcher at Sahlgrenska Academy. “Only in a relatively small minority of the cases, however, does the severity of the condition qualify as a pathological state.”
Inhabitants of Gothenburg who participated in the population-based studies completed a semi-structured psychiatric interview, along with cognitive tests. The thesis proceeded from the data that were collected in order to generate prevalence and prognosis statistics for specific phobias, as well as for depression and symptoms of psychosis.
Multiple phobias were particularly common in those with a severe form of the condition. The majority of people with severe phobias had experienced some, but not total, relief by the age of 79.
Although specific phobias – exaggerated fear of spiders, heights, airplanes, lifts and injections – are among the most common psychiatric ailments, few sufferers actually obtain treatment.
“Given that behavioral therapy is effective in such cases,” Dr. Sigström says, “further research should address the various ways that having a phobia affects the lives of the elderly and the factors that prevent them from doing anything about it.”
More than 50% of the 70-year-olds who were followed up on had some form of depression and almost 10% were diagnosed with major depression. Half of those with mild or major depression at the age of 70 continued to suffer from one of the conditions at follow-up. While phobias seemed to ease with time, the course of depression was frequently just the opposite.
“Considering that four out of every ten people with major depression at 75 and 79 had suffered from a mild form of the disease at 70,” Dr. Sigström says, “therapies that can arrest progression offer significant potential.”
Dr. Sigström defended Psychiatric Symptoms and Disorders in Old Age: Prevalence, Course and Diagnostic Thresholds on September 25 under the aegis of the Center for Aging and Health (AgeCap).
Link to the thesis
The most common phobias identified by the studies had to do with snakes, spiders, rats and other living things, as well as heights, depths, lightning, thunder and similar primeval experiences. Each type of phobia was detected among approximately 40% of the participants. Approximately 25% of the respondents reported having phobias related to particular recurring situations (taking a lift, flying in an airplane or being in a crowded place/claustrophobia). Only 10% of the phobias involved the sight of blood, receiving injections or going to a dental appointment. Each type was more likely to occur in women than men. The study included 558 individuals 70 years of age, 303 of whom were followed up at 70 and 79.
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Robert Sigström, Researcher, Sahlgrenska Academy
Supervisor: Svante Östling, Associate Professor