Research suggests that Anxiety may accelerate the progression of mild cognitive impairment into Alzheimer’s disease.
When abnormal clusters of amyloid-beta plaque forms between the nerve cells in the brain it causes the tissue to die and the brain to shrink.
In early stages of the disease, an individual may have memory lapses that cause them to forget recent conversations, misplace items, or have trouble finding the right words for normal things.
These vague symptoms that sometimes go un-noticed, is the reason why Alzheimer’s disease is often mistaken for anxiety.
Scientist have recently discovered that the mental-health conditions could actually accelerate the disease’s progression.
Scientists form the Medical University of South Carolina looked at 339 people with mild cognitive decline. The team found those that displayed anxiety symptoms developed Alzheimer’s disease at a faster rate, irrespective of how much brain volume they lost or if they were genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia is the general term for the loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to inhibit with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia and is the most prevalent.
Alzheimer’s is progressive and degenerative, with the rate of decline varying between individuals. Most first endure mild cognitive impairment- which is a loss in memory an thinking skills that goes beyond normal ageing.
Anxiety is observed often in individuals with mild cognitive impairment or early onset, however its role in the progression of the disease was not understood.
“We know volume loss in certain areas of the brain is a factor that predicts progression to Alzheimer’s disease,” said study author Dr Maria Vittoria Spampinato.
“In this study, we wanted to see if anxiety had an effect on brain structure, or if the effect of anxiety was independent from brain structure in favouring the progression of disease.”
There were 339 individuals with Alzheimer’s disease with an average age of 72 that took part in the study. Each individual had been previously diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, with 72 progressing to Alzheimer’s disease, while the other 267 remained stable.
The scientists looked at 339 patients, with an average age of 72, who took part in the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative 2 study.
MRI Brain scans were taken to determine loss of two regions: the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex- which are important to memory formation.
The individuals were also tested for the gene ApoE4, which is one of the most prevalent risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Anxiety was measured through clinical surveys.
The individuals who progressed to Alzheimer’s disease had significantly lower volumes in their hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, as well as a greater frequency of the ApoE4 genetic variation, as expected. What was most notable, is that the scientist also discovered that anxiety was associated with cognitive decline.
“Mild cognitive impairment patients with anxiety symptoms developed Alzheimer’s disease faster than individuals without anxiety, independently of whether they had a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease or brain volume loss,” said co-author Jenny Ulber, a medical student.
The link between anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease may allow doctors to screen patients with mild cognitive impairment and gauge their risk of developing Dementia according to scientists.
“We need to better understand the association between anxiety disorders and cognitive decline,” said Dr Spampinato.
“We don’t know yet if the anxiety is a symptom – in other words, their memory is getting worse and they become anxious – or if anxiety contributes to cognitive decline.
“If we were able in the future to find anxiety is actually causing progression, then we should more aggressively screen for anxiety disorders in the elderly.”
Ulber added: “The geriatric population is routinely screened for depression in many hospitals, but perhaps this vulnerable population should also be assessed for anxiety disorders.
“Middle-aged and elderly individuals with high level of anxiety may benefit from intervention, whether it be pharmacological or cognitive behavioural therapy, with the goal of slowing cognitive decline.”
“We’re now interested in looking at changes over time to see if anxiety has an effect one way or the other on how fast the brain damage progresses,” said Dr Spampinaton.
“We will also take a closer look at gender differences in the association between anxiety and cognitive decline.”