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10 November 2014 - MedicalXpress - Anxiety can damage brain: Accelerate conversion to Alzheimer's for those with mild cognitive impairment

People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are at increased risk of converting to Alzheimer's disease within a few years, but a new study warns the risk increases significantly if they suffer from anxiety.

Led by researchers at Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute, the study has shown clearly for the first time that anxiety symptoms in individuals diagnosed with MCI increase the risk of a speedier decline in cognitive functions - independent of depression (another risk marker). For MCI patients with mild, moderate or severe anxiety, Alzheimer's risk increased by 33%, 78% and 135% respectively.

The research team also found that MCI patients who had reported anxiety symptoms at any time over the follow-up period had greater rates of atrophy in the medial temporal lobe regions of the brain, which are essential for creating memories and which are implicated in Alzheimer's.

Until now, anxiety as a potentially significant risk marker for Alzheimer's in people diagnosed with MCI has never been isolated for a longitudinal study to gain a clearer picture of just how damaging anxiety symptoms can be on cognition and brain structure over a period of time. There is a growing body of literature that has identified late-life depression as a significant risk marker for Alzheimer's. Anxiety has historically tended to be subsumed under the rubric of depression in psychiatry. Depression is routinely screened for in assessment and follow-up of memory clinic patients; anxiety is not routinely assessed.