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Women: More Panic Attacks in Midlife

Women's Role in Society Puts Them at Greater Risk

Serious Life Events Trigger Panic Attacks continued...

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.

"More likely, it's the effects of stressful life events that women are exposed to, like abuse," Pregler tells WebMD. "Women's role in society may impact anxiety.

We've seen it in studies of monkeys and of people, that those who are more fearful of taking risk, who are not assertive, are more prone to panic disorder. We have to consider at what point does society put women at risk?"

While fewer women over age 60 reported panic attacks in Smoller's study, there may be reasons, Pregler adds. "They may not think it appropriate to mention it to their doctors. Or they may not realize what is happening when they have a panic attack."


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