Anxiety in Middle Age Linked to Dementia

Middle-aged people with moderate to severe anxiety may be more likely to develop dementia later in life, according to a new study.

Research published Monday, April 30, 2018, in the journal BMJ Open looked at four related studies that followed almost 30,000 individuals, ranging in age from 30 to 65, over a period of a decade or more. All of the studies analyzed “found a positive association between clinically significant anxiety and future dementia,” the researchers wrote.

The new study suggests that treating anxiety might lower the possibility of developing dementia later on, although research so far has not shown that anxiety directly causes dementia.

“Given the long time interval between the assessment of anxiety and the diagnosis of dementia [on average greater than 10 years], the findings from our review indicate that moderate to severe anxiety may be a potentially modifiable risk factor for dementia,” says lead study author, Amy Gimson, MD, who’s on the faculty of medicine at the University of Southampton in England and working with the division of psychiatry at University College London on this research.

Anxiety as a Risk Factor

“If anxiety is indeed a risk factor for dementia, this has implications for being able to better identify individuals at risk and to intervene early to reduce the risk,” Dr. Gimson says.

Gimson points out that the research considered only anxiety symptoms significant enough to be diagnosed by a doctor and that “have an impact on day-to-day activities.”

“Based on this study, patients with anxiety may want to be more vigilant looking for the symptoms of early dementia or Alzheimer’s,” says Gisele Wolf-Klein, MD, director of geriatric education at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York, who was not involved in the study.

Signs of Alzheimer’s

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s or another dementia include difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion with time or place, and changes in mood leading to feelings of anxiousness, as well as fearfulness and depression. Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

“I always advise patients with anxiety to seek medical or psychological support,” says Dr. Wolf-Klein. But she stresses that the new study findings do not prove a causal relationship between anxiety and dementia.

“So far, the connection between anxiety and dementia is observational,” she says. “Further study is needed. For instance, research specifically looking at dementia in patients who have been treated for anxiety with medication or therapy would be helpful.”

How Are Anxiety, Dementia Linked?

So what may be behind the association between anxiety and dementia? Wolf-Klein suggests that neurochemical changes in the brain may be a factor. “We know that certain body chemicals may contribute to anxiety disorders, and medication can correct certain deficiencies in neurotransmitters related to depression,” she says.

Gimson also points out that stress has been linked to inflammation in the brain, which may play a role in both anxiety and dementia.

The study authors wrote that an abnormal stress response, such as exhibited in anxiety disorders, may be associated with accelerated cellular aging and increased neurodegeneration. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by a deterioration of brain cells.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *