Anxiety 'accelerates Alzheimer's onset'

People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are known to be at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. However, those who experience anxiety may have an even greater risk, according to new research.

A new study at Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute has examined the relationship between anxiety and cognitive decline in patients with MCI. Its findings, which were reported in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, confirmed anxiety can accelerate the onset of Alzheimer's.

This is the first time that a study has isolated anxiety as a risk factor for Alzhemier's in people diagnosed with MCI, reports Medical Xpress. The research was carried out in the hope that it would shed light on how damaging anxiety can be for cognition and brain structure over time.

Researchers used data from the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative to analyse anxiety, depression, cognitive and brain structural changes in 376 adults between the ages of 55 and 91. All of the subjects had been diagnosed with MCI, but showed low scores on the depression scale. The study lasted three years and patients were monitored every six months.

The researchers found that MCI patients with mild, moderate or severe anxiety have an increased risk developing of Alzheimer's by 33, 78 and 135 per cent respectively.

in addition, the study found that patients who reported anxiety symptoms during the follow-up period showed greater rates of atrophy in the medial temporal lobes. These regions of the brain are essential for creating memories and they are believed to be involved in the onset of Alzheimer's.

Currently, people with MCI or memory problems are routinely screened for depression, as it is another risk marker for Alzheimer's. However, Dr Linda Mah, principal investigator on the study, believes that patients should also be checked for anxiety. 

She said: "Our findings suggest that clinicians should routinely screen for anxiety in people who have memory problems because anxiety signals that these people are at greater risk for developing Alzheimer's."

Dr Mah added that there is currently no published evidence to demonstrate whether drug treatments to deal with anxiety would help to manage symptoms of MCI or decrease the risk of conversion to Alzheimer's. 

"We think at the very least behavioural stress management programmes could be recommended," she explained.