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Jornal Brasileiro de Psiquiatria

Print version ISSN 0047-2085On-line version ISSN 1982-0208

J. bras. psiquiatr. vol.69 no.2 Rio de Janeiro Apr./June 2020  Epub June 01, 2020 


Prevalence and correlates of generalized anxiety disorder among elderly people in primary health care

Prevalência e correlatos do transtorno de ansiedade generalizada em idosos atendidos em atenção primária

Caroline Menta1  2

Luísa Weber Bisol3

Eduardo Lopes Nogueira1  2

Paula Engroff1  2

Alfredo Cataldo Neto1  2

1 Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), Hospital São Lucas, Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil.

2 Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), Institute of Geriatrics and Gerontology (IGG), Postgraduate Program in Biomedical Gerontology, Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil.

3 Federal University of Ceará (UFC), Fortaleza, CE, Brazil.



To examine the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and its associations with sociodemographic and health factors.


A cross-sectional study with a population-based sample of 578 individuals aged 60 years or older from the Family Health Strategy (FHS) program of Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil. Home visit screening and general data collection were made by trained Community Health Workers (CHWs). Diagnoses of psychiatric disorders were made by board-certified psychiatrists using the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview plus (MINIplus) in the Hospital São Lucas of the Pontifical University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS).


GAD was found in 9% of the sample (n = 52; CI 95% = 6.9-11.6). The main results of the multivariate analysis show associations between GAD and retirement (PR: 0.43, CI: 0.25-0.76), history of falls (PR: 2.52, CI: 1.42-4.49), cohabitation with four or more people (PR: 1.80, CI: 1.04-3.13), having more than one hospitalization in the last year (PR: 2.53, CI: 1.17-5.48) and self-perception of health as regular (PR: 2.75, CI: 1.02-7.47). Retirement in the elderly shows 2.32x less risk of GAD, although confounding factors may have overestimated this finding and underestimated the association with female gender (PR: 1.61, CI: 0.83-3.10).


We estimate a high prevalence of GAD in this population. Associations were found between GAD and health self-perceived as regular, cohabitation with four or more people, history of falls and more than one hospitalization in the last year. These epidemiological data from the Family Health Strategy are important to develop further strategies for this age group that could improve the health care practice.

Key words: Aged; anxiety disorders; generalized anxiety disorder; epidemiology; primary health care; public health



Examinar a prevalência do transtorno de ansiedade generalizada (TAG) em idosos e suas associações com fatores sociodemográficos e de saúde.


Estudo transversal, composto por uma amostra de base populacional de 578 indivíduos com 60 anos ou mais, participantes do programa Estratégia Saúde da Família (ESF) de Porto Alegre, RS, Brasil. Agentes de saúde treinados realizaram coleta de dados dos indivíduos durante as visitas domiciliares. A avaliação diagnóstica psiquiátrica foi realizada por psiquiatras, no Hospital São Lucas da Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), por meio da aplicação do Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview plus (MINIplus).


O TAG foi encontrado em 9% (n = 52; IC 95% = 6,9-11,6) da amostra. Os principais resultados da análise multivariada evidenciaram associações entre TAG e aposentadoria (RP: 0,43; IC: 0,25-0,76), história de quedas (RP: 2,52; IC: 1,42-4,49), coabitação com quatro ou mais pessoas (RP: 1,80; IC: 1,04-3,13), ter mais de uma hospitalização no último ano (RP: 2,53, IC: 1,17-5,48) e autopercepção de saúde avaliada como regular (RP: 2,75, IC: 1,02-7,47). Idosos aposentados apresentaram risco 2,32 menor de TAG, embora fatores confundidores possam ter superestimado esse achado e subestimado a associação com gênero feminino (RP: 1,61; IC: 0,83-3,10).


Estimou-se uma alta prevalência de TAG nessa população de idosos. Foram encontradas associações de TAG com autopercepção de saúde regular, coabitação com quatro ou mais pessoas, mais de uma hospitalização no último ano e história de quedas. Esses dados oriundos da Estratégia Saúde da Família são importantes para o desenvolvimento de estratégias adicionais que possam melhorar a prática de assistência à saúde na população idosa.

Palavras-Chave: Idoso; transtornos ansiosos; transtorno de ansiedade generalizada; epidemiologia; atenção primária à saúde; saúde pública


The acceleration of population aging is a global phenomenon, and as such, it is very important to direct investigations towards the most prevalent neuropsychiatric diseases among the elderly1 . Anxiety disorders, although frequent in this population, are usually understudied and underdiagnosed in seniors2 . The diagnoses of anxiety and depression in the primary care system are poor, just 23% of pure anxiety cases are recognized when compared with 56% of depression cases3 .

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common anxiety disease in the elderly4 . It is characterized by unusually excessive worry, associated with a feeling of restlessness, feeling keyed up, muscle tension and reactive behavior that attempt to reduce worry or emotional distress, such as avoidance5 . Its prevalence varies from 1.2 to 7.3% in community-dwelling elderly2 , 6 . This disorder causes important negative impacts that lead to high and chronic psychological suffering and impairs quality of life, as well as professional and personal performance7 . Even so, population-based studies on anxiety are relatively scarce in Latin America. Thus, the aim of this study is to estimate the prevalence of GAD and examine its associations with sociodemographic and health factors.


This cross-sectional population-based survey is part of a larger project “The multidimensional study of the elderly in the FSH in Porto Alegre, Brazil (EMI-SUS)8 ”, focused to show the elderly population’s health problems. Data were gathered between March 2011 and December 2012 from a random sample of older adults (60 years or more) users of the Family Health Strategy (FSH), a public health facility, in Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil. In 2010, when the protocol was carried out, the municipality had 22,000 seniors registered in 97 family health teams (FHT), distributed into 8 health districts (HD). Considering possible sample losses and exclusions, 30 FHT were selected through stratified random sampling and 36 older adults were selected for each team, a total sample of 1,080 seniors. The “sample.exe”, program of the PEPI for DOS statistical package (version 4) was used to calculate the sample size of GAD in elderly people and a 0.05 was selected as a significance level. The minimum sample size was 569, considering 2% of the acceptable error to an expected prevalence from 6.5% of GAD in seniors9 . The study consisted of 1) home visits to collect sociodemographic data and validated screening evaluations for depression, alcohol misuse and cognitive impairment conducted by trained Community Health Workers (CHWs); 2) blind specialized evaluations conducted by board-certified psychiatrists in the Hospital São Lucas of the Pontifical University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS) to assess current and lifetime diagnosis of psychiatric disorders using the Brazilian version of Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview 5.0.0 Plus (MINIplus). Of 1,080 randomly selected seniors, the CHWs located 809 alive and residing at their registered addresses. Out of those, 621 headed to the hospital for evaluation and complete MINIplus dada was gathered from 578, which were included in this analysis.

The dependent variable examined was the GAD diagnosis based on DSM-IV criteria. Frequencies were used to describe the sample and estimate prevalence with a confidence interval (CI) of 95%. Pearson’s chi-square test was used to verify associations and the Poisson regression was used to improve the analysis and control confounding factors. All variables were initially included in the controlled analysis and those with less significance were excluded one-by-one to achieve the final model. A predetermined level of 0.05 was considered and calculations were performed using the software SPSS 17.

This study was approved by the PUCRS ethics committee (10/04967) and the Public Health Department of the city of Porto Alegre (registration: 499/process: 001.021434.10.7) All participants or their legal representatives signed an informed consent.


The total sample was comprised of 578 individuals and was characterized by a predominance of women (63.8%, n = 369), younger elderly (62.4.%, n = 337), illiteracy or very poor schooling (61.6%, n = 356), and low income (93.2%, n = 507). The prevalence of GAD was 9% (n = 52, CI: 6.9-11.6).

Table 1 shows the variation frequencies of GAD in relation to sociodemographic characteristics, self-perceived health, history of hospitalization in the past 12 months and history of falls. The main uncontrolled findings show higher frequencies of GAD in female gender 10.8% (n = 40, p = 0.04), 60-69 age group 11% (n = 37, p = 0.047), not retired 17.7% (n = 26, p = 0.001), cohabitation with 4 or more people 11.9% (n = 33, p = 0.019), and history of falls 18.8% (n = 40, p = 0.003).

Table 1 Distribution of sociodemographic and health characteristics and the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) according to these variables on 578 elderly evaluated by the Porto Alegre’s Family Health Strategy (FHS), Brazil, 2012 

Variable Population n (%) GAD 1
% p 2
Male 209 (36.2) 5.7 0.040
Female 369 (63.8) 10.8
60-69 years 337 (62.4) 11.0 0.047
≥70 years 203 (37.6) 5.9
Years of schooling
Illiterates 147 (25.4) 8.8 0.653
1-4 years 209 (36.2) 8.1
5-8 years 173 (29.9) 9.8
>8 years 49 (8.5) 10.2
White 369 (65.0) 10.0 0.229
Multiracial (Brown) 77 (13.6) 9.1
Afro-Brazilian 106 (18.7) 4.7
Others (Indigenous and oriental) 16 (2.8) 12.5
Marital status
Married 215 (37.7) 10.7 0.544
Separated 93 (16.3) 9.7
Single 100 (17.5) 3.0
Widowed 163 (28.5) 10.4
Lives with life partner
No 295 (51.7) 8.8 0.960
Yes 276 (48.3) 8.7
No 177 (31.9) 14.7 0.001
Yes 377 (68.1) 6.1
Number of people in cohabitation
1-3 301 (52.1) 6.3 0.019
≥4 277 (47.9) 11.9
Personal income (minimum salary)3
No income 44 (8.1) 9.1 0.972
Up to 2 salaries 463 (85.1) 9.3
More than 2 salaries 37 (6.8) 8.1
Catholic 374 (65.7) 8.8 0.972
Protestant 115 (20.2) 9.6
Others 65 (11.4) 7.7
agnostic/atheist 15 (2.6) 3.9
Self-perceived health
Excellent/Good 56 (9.9) 10.7 0.328
Regular 312 (54.9) 9.9
Poor/Very poor 200 (35.2) 7.5
Hospitalization last year
No 476 (84.0) 8.2 0.004
Once 66 (11.6) 9.1
More than once 25 (4.4) 28.0
History of falls
No 351 (62.6) 6.3 0.003
Yes 210 (37.4) 18.8
TOTAL 578 (100) 9,0

1 Generalized anxiety disorder.

2 Based on the Chi-square test.

3 The minimum salary is the lowest legal monthly income for an employee in Brazil. The amount is set by the government and was approximately $ 300 (US dollars).

In bold the p value with a statistically significant difference.

Prevalence of GAD = 9,0 (n = 52), CI (confidence interval) 95% = 6,9-11,6.

Table 2 presents multivariate results using the Poisson regression with a robust estimation of Prevalence Ratios (PR) that are discussed below.

Table 2 Final multivariate analysis model, with Poisson regression, from sociodemographic and health variables in relation with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in 578 elderly evaluated by the Porto Alegre’s Family Health Strategy (FHS), Brazil, 2012 

Variable GAD 1
PR 2 CI 3 95% p
  • Male

  • Female

  • 1

  • 1.61

  • -

  • 0.83-3.10

  • 0.158

  • 60-69 years

  • ≥70 years

  • 1

  • 0.66

  • -

  • 0.34-1.28

  • 0.221

  • White

  • Multiracial (Brown)

  • Afro-Brazilian

  • Others (Indigenous and oriental)

  • 1

  • 0.84

  • 0.67

  • 2.17

  • -

  • 0.38-1.87

  • 0.27-1.67

  • 0.61-7.70

  • 0.667

  • 0.395

  • 0.230

  • No

  • Yes

  • 1

  • 0.43

  • -

  • 0.25-0.76

  • 0.004

Number of people in cohabitation
  • 1-3

  • ≥4

  • 1

  • 1.80

  • -

  • 1.04-3.13

  • 0.037

History of falls
  • No Yes

  • 1

  • 2.52

  • -

  • 1.42-4.49

  • 0.002

Hospitalization last year
  • No

  • Once

  • More than once

  • 1

  • 1.18

  • 2.53

  • -

  • 0.47-2.95

  • 1.17-5.48

  • 0.721

  • 0.019

Self-perceived health
  • Excellent/Very good

  • Regular

  • Poor/Very poor

  • 1

  • 2.75

  • 1.93

  • -

  • 1.02-7.47

  • 0.66-5.66

  • 0.047

  • 0.232

1 Generalized anxiety disorder.

2 Prevalence ratios.

3 Confidence interval.

In bold the p value with statistically significant difference.


A high prevalence of GAD was estimated; the result is superior to what is described in the literature, which varies from 1.2% to 7.3%2 , 6 , possibly because of different methodological and diagnostic approaches10 . Women received the diagnosis more frequently than men (10.8% versus 5.7%), as observed in literature9 . On the other hand, this association lost significance in the controlled analysis (PR: 1.61, CI: 0.83-3.10), but a tendency was observed. An explanation for this attenuation when comparing gender could be in a collinear interference with other stronger associations: women have a higher history of falls (44% versus 27%, p ≤ 0.001) and lower retirement rates (64.5% versus 74.5%, p = 0.014).

Regarding age, older individuals presented GAD less frequently (5.9% versus 11%), contrary to the high prevalence of 10.6% observed in a study with people aged 85 or older11 .

Retirement reduces by 2.32x the probability of GAD diagnosis (p = 0.004). Two influences could contribute to this finding: 1) women may be less likely to answer this question correctly because they possibly consider that they never worked officially; and 2) retired people possibly have no work pressure and can better structure a social life for themselves, enjoying activities that before retirement, they didn’t have time to practice, leading to lower rates of anxiety. Another unexpected result was the 1.8x increase in GAD among elders that live with 4 or more people. In Brazil, family members with low income often depend financially on retired elderly, which may increase the chances of stress and even financial violence; certainly, this association deserves a more specific analysis to examine the patterns implicit in these complex relationships.

The severe course of GAD can lead to higher service rates12 . Most studies have been focused on the link between psychiatric disorders (depression and less frequent, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder) and health service utilization, and they are not specific for elderly people13 , 14 . However, there are insufficient population-based studies that show associations between GAD and hospitalization admission. The longitudinal EPIC-Norfolk study, a population-based study, showed that participants with GAD comorbid with major depressive disorder had a higher risk for hospital admissions12 . Although our study evidenced an increase of 2.53x of GAD among seniors who were hospitalized more than once last year (p = 0.019), future research needs to examine the reasons for the increased GAD in this particular population, since the major depressive disorder diagnosis was excluded in our sample.

The Poisson regression revealed that the individuals who had a history of falls increased the probability of GAD (PR: 2.52, 95% CI: 1.42-4.49); as we can observe the results from a meta-analysis that indicated a significant positive association between anxiety symptoms and falls. Individuals who reported elevated levels of anxiety were 1.53 times more likely to have a fall than those who did not (95% CI: 1.28-1.83, p < 0.001)15 . Further studies are important to establish the causal relationship through which anxiety might perform as a risk factor for falls. However, Friedman researched a positive feedback loop created by anxiety symptoms and falls, whereby anxiety increases fall risk, and following falls events increase anxiety symptoms16 .

Even if the causal relationship was not examined in the cross-sectional design, the increase in GAD diagnosis associated with poorer health, as in the case of a history of falls and hospitalizations, could be expected since organic diseases and other problems related to frailty increase anxiety and other types of psychological suffering.

Regarding self-perceived health, the association of poorer health and GAD is not directly proportional; individuals with this anxiety disorder will less frequently report their self-perceived health as very good or good. This finding in part may reflect the core characteristics of this syndrome, such as extremely high anxiety with worry and concerns related to everyday situations, accidents, diseases, and their own health; thereby all these symptoms can create a distortion in self-reporting measurements.

Finally, even though the sample had populational characteristics, all individuals were enrolled in the FHS, which could explain the high prevalence of GAD. This study presents associations with sociodemographic characteristics that were not examined previously in current literature and that should be further studied. Associations with gender, income, and health open possibilities for testing new hypotheses in GAD or other anxiety disorders in the elderly population in low and middle-income countries. Furthermore, improvements in the screening and mental diagnosis may lead to early intervention and better approaches that could lower costs for the health care system.


The data show a high prevalence of GAD in a representative sample of the elderly. Nevertheless, this disorder remains underdiagnosed and undertreated in the health primary care system. These epidemiological data from the Family Health Strategy are important to develop further strategies for this age group that could improve the health care practice. The screening of anxiety symptoms and syndromes in old people could lead to an early treatment that will improve life quality and could help to lower the health care system costs.


This is a cross-sectional study, thereby it is possible to make associations but not possible to infer about causality between variables. The sample came from the FHS program, a public health facility that belongs to the Brazilian public health system that include predominantly individuals with low-income resources. There is a high predominance of females in the sample, probably reflecting a more collaborative profile and greater health services use than compared with males. Despite free transportation offered to the subjects from FHS to the hospital, we had losses that came from the physical or mental disability. Therefore, this loss can be reduced if the trained team could go to these subjects’ houses and apply all the assessments.

This study started when DSM IV was current. We had a few changes between GAD diagnoses criteria in the DSM-IV and the DSM-5. The DSM-IV criteria included that the anxiety and worry do not occur exclusively due to PTSD, a mood disorder, a psychotic disorder, or a pervasive developmental disorder. In DSM-5, this text was replaced by “the disturbance is not better explained by another mental disorder.” Studies from the DSM-5 field trials of people-seeking treatment exhibited that there was a small but significant decrease in DSM-5 prevalence estimates of GAD when compared with the DSM-IV clinical diagnosis17 . Nevertheless, the results must be interpreted with attention, because these findings were focused on assessments of treatment-seeking participants at only one of the seven field trial sites. The site-specific effects may affect the rates and the use of a treatment sample may not be extrapolated to a nationally representative household-based study18 .


We thank our patients for being willing to participate in this study.


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Received: April 7, 2020; Accepted: April 7, 2020

Address for correspondence: Caroline Menta. Av. Ipiranga, 6690 – 90619-900 – Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil. E-mail:


Caroline Menta – Performed data collection, data analysis, and manuscript preparation.

Luísa Weber Bisol – Performed data analysis, and manuscript preparation.

Eduardo Lopes Nogueira – Performed project development, data collect, data analysis, and manuscript preparation.

Paula Engroff – Performed project development, data collection, data analysis, and manuscript preparation.

Alfredo Cataldo Neto – Performed project development, data collection, data analysis, and manuscript preparation.



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