Anxiety could be linked to Alzheimer’s disease, study suggests

BOSTON — A recent study shows that worsening symptoms of anxiety in adulthood may be linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

While previous studies have shown depression and other mental disorders can be predictors of Alzheimer’s disease in its “pre-clinical” phase — when deposits of fibrillar amyloid and pathological tau build up in the brain, the neurological keys that eventually open the door to the disease — this is the first to examine anxiety specifically.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that increased levels of the protein fragment amyloid beta — one of the key indicators of Alzheimer’s — could be linked to increased feelings of anxiety in individuals.

“Rather than just looking at depression as a total score, we looked at specific symptoms such as anxiety. When compared to other symptoms of depression such as sadness or loss of interest, anxiety symptoms increased over time in those with higher amyloid beta levels in the brain,” explains first author Dr. Nancy Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s, in a release.

The research team used data collected as a part of the Harvard Aging Brain Study, a study that sought to identify characteristics of the brain during early stages of Alzheimer’s. Participants of this study were 270 cognitively normal men and women between the ages of 62 and 90 with no active psychological disorders. They underwent baseline imaging scans typically used in Alzheimer’s treatment, and took annual assessments to detect depression.

Researchers used results from the psychological assessments to measure for depression, along with specific symptoms of the disorder, including anxiety. Scores were measured over a span of five years.

The results showed that individuals with elevated levels of beta-amyloid tended to show greater symptoms of anxiety over time. In other words, people with cases of anxiety that worsen as they age may be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

“This suggests that anxiety symptoms could be a manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease prior to the onset of cognitive impairment,” says Donovan. “If further research substantiates anxiety as an early indicator, it would be important for not only identifying people early on with the disease, but also, treating it and potentially slowing or preventing the disease process early on.”

The full study was published January 12, 2018 in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

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