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Women: More Panic Attacks in Midlife

Women's Role in Society Puts Them at Greater Risk
By
WebMD Health News

Sept. 22, 2003 -- After age 50, a woman is at high risk for panic attacks -- especially if she has faced stressful life events and health problems.

That's the finding from a new study in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine.

Panic attacks are a distinctive form of anxiety more common in women than men.

A full-blown panic attack is defined as an attack of sudden fear for no apparent reason, anxiety, or extreme discomfort.

However, whether panic attacks are more likely to happen in the menopausal years has never been studied, writes researcher Jordan W. Smoller, MD, ScD, a psychiatric researcher with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"To our knowledge, this study is the largest survey of the prevalence ... of panic attacks in postmenopausal women," Smoller adds.

Serious Life Events Trigger Panic Attacks

His study involved more than 3,000 women -- between age 50 and 79 -- who completed detailed questionnaires on an assortment of heart disease, respiratory, migraine, panic, and other symptoms; serious life events that occurred in the previous year; and limitations that panic attacks had on their lives.

Researchers found:

  • 18% had experienced panic attacks in the past six months.
  • 13% had full-blown panic attacks that impaired their social activities and daily lives.
  • 7% had limited-symptom panic attacks (rapid or irregular heartbeat only).
  • 14% of full-blown panic attacks. -- The majority happened to women between age 50 and 59.
  • Women were nearly three times more likely to have full-blown panic attacks if their income was less than $20,000 a year.
  • One-third of women who had full-blown panic attacks also suffered from depression symptoms and women with defined depression were also significantly more likely to suffer from full- blown panic attacks.
  • Women with emphysema, asthma, heart disease, migraines with aura, and thyroid problems were more likely to report full- blown panic attacks.
  • Stressful life events factored strongly in panic attacks. Women who had five or more events in the past year were seventimes more likely to have full-blown panic attacks.

A woman's marital status and education level did not make an appreciable difference in whether she had panic attacks or not. Also, whether she had taken hormone replacement therapy did not make a difference, Smoller reports.

Because some medical conditions produce symptoms similar to panic attacks -- and women may be misdiagnosed -- "we believe that the rates we observed may be a conservative estimate of panic in postmenopausal women," he writes.

Panic attacks and panic disorder often begin when women are in their 20s or 30s, but there may be a later peak between ages 45 and 54, Smoller writes. Panic Disorder in Older Women Ignored

"This is a great study; it's been very much needed," says Katherine Shear, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, tells WebMD.

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