Background: Differential diagnosis implies identifying shared and divergent characteristics between clinical states. Clinical work with older adults demands not only the knowledge of nosological features associated with differential diagnosis, but also recognition of idiosyncratic factors associated with this population. Several factors can interfere with an accurate diagnosis of specific phobia in older cohorts. The goal of this paper is to review criteria for specific phobia and its differential diagnosis with panic disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, while stressing the specific factors associated with aging.
Methods: A literature search regarding specific phobia in older adults was carried out using PubMed. Relevant articles were selected and scanned for further pertinent references. In addition, relevant references related to differential diagnosis and assessment were used.
Results: Etiologic factors, specificity of feared stimulus or situation, fear predictability and the nature of phobic situations are key points to be assessed when implementing a differential diagnosis of specific phobia.
Conclusions: First, age-related sensory impairments are common and interfere both with information processing and communication. Second, medical illnesses create symptoms that might cause, interfere with, or mimic anxiety. Third, cohort effects might result in underreporting, through the inability to communicate or recognize anxiety symptoms, misattributing them to physical conditions. Finally, diagnostic criteria and screening instruments were usually developed using younger samples and are therefore not adapted to the functional and behavioral characteristics of older samples.