Anxiety Linked to the Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, Study Shows

People with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia often suffer from mood swings and other changes to their emotional states, such as anxiety and depression. However, we don’t entirely understand the connection between mood and dementia. Now, however, new research shows that anxiety and similar mood issues may be early indicators of the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study followed 339 patients who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, meaning they had persistent problems with memory and thinking skills which may or may not progress into full-blown dementia. 72 of them were eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The team found that those participants who had higher levels of anxiety at the start of the study were more likely than the others to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease sometime over the next several years. Of those who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, those with anxiety also had a faster progression of the disease and more shrinkage in the brain.

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People who carry the ApoE4 gene or who have a lower tissue volume in certain areas of the brain also had a faster Alzheimer’s progression in the study.

On the surface, the data seem to be showing that anxiety may be a contributing factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease or may at least speed the progression of the disease. But that may not be the case.

You see, this study shows correlation—not causation—between anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease progression, meaning that researchers cannot be sure how the two are linked. It’s possible that the presence of anxiety in certain subject participants contributed to the progression of their memory issues, but it’s also possible that anxiety is a symptom rather than a cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Photo: Adobe Stock/GordonGrand

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And according to Mary Sano, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Mount Sinai in New York City, the latter is the more likely explanation. Sanos doubts that treating someone for anxiety could “change the underlying biology” of the disease’s progression.

All the same, it is important to recognize anxiety as a potential red flag of the disease, and anxiety symptoms are much easier to measure than many of the other symptoms of dementia. It’s also important to treat anxiety if possible for the person’s overall well-being. “It’s an important symptom to consider,” says Sano.

There is, of course, no way to truly predict how dementia will progress for any one individual. Everyone is different; some people’s symptoms come on quickly, while others are surprised at how long they’re able to hold onto the better part of their mental capacity.

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