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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Women: More Panic Attacks in Midlife

Women's Role in Society Puts Them at Greater Risk
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Serious Life Events Trigger Panic Attacks continued...

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.

Indeed, "most studies have focused on panic in younger women, not those in menopause years," Shear tells WebMD. There's even been some confusion about whether very many older women experience panic attacks, she says.

This study also helps shed light on the relationship between panic and heart disease, says Shear. "Studies have linked panic and heart disease in men, but no one has ever looked at this in women. While this study doesn't quite establish a link, I think it does present good evidence."

"The same nervous system imbalances that trigger sudden death and heart disease may also trigger panic attack," Shear tells WebMD. "Mental stress and stressful life events are strongly associated with panic and with heart disease."

Doctors are not always good at diagnosing panic, she adds. "[Smoller's] study underscores that not only are panic attacks prevalent in post-menopausal women but they are also clinically significant. It is a serious mental illness."

Panic disorder is a major health problem, and "currently there are no funded National Institute of Mental Health studies of anxiety disorders in older women. It's a major deficiency in the field," says Shear. "This study is helping us draw attention to that fact."

Societal, not Hormonal

Doctors should indeed be looking more closely at their patients' symptoms, looking for signs of panic disorder, says Janet Pregler, MD, director of the Iris Cantor UCLA Women's Center.

After all, panic does not seem to be a hormonal disorder, Pregler points out. Even before girls start having periods, they show higher rates of anxiety disorders. That's a clear sign that hormones are not involved.

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