Does chronic anxiety lead to Alzheimer’s? New study links neuropsychiatric symptoms with the disease
02/19/2019 // Jhoanna Robinson // Views

In a study of data gathered on 270 cognitively normal older adults between the ages of 62 and 90, called the Harvard Brain Aging Study, scientists from Brigham and Women's Hospital found that as levels of amyloid beta – proteins that are associated with Alzheimer's disease – rise, the more they tend to become anxious.

Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes the degeneration of cognitive function that makes it impossible to carry out the activities of day-to-day life. Earlier studies have suggested that depression and other neuropsychiatric symptoms may predict the progression of Alzheimer's disease during its pre-clinical phase, during which time brain deposits of fibrillar amyloid and pathological tau increase in a patient's brain. This phase can transpire more than 10 years before a patient's onset of mild cognitive impairment.

Even though the exact culprit as to the occurrence of Alzheimer's still evades scientists, clumps of chemically “sticky” proteins, called beta-amyloids, that converge in the neurons are a hallmark of the disease. The clumps, called plaques, mess with the signals in the brain, causing loss of memory and cognitive functions in Alzheimer's patients.

Amyloid plaques start building up long before the most obvious symptoms of Alzheimer's – primary of which is the trouble with regard to recalling information – begin to manifest in patients. Differences in personality and mood, however, are less likely to be noticed, but are common markers in people who are afflicted with the disease. (Related: Obesity causes Alzheimers; massive wave of Alzheimer's to strike America in the years ahead.)


In the said study, which was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry on Friday, January 12, the researchers assessed self-reports on 30 symptoms of depression (Geriatric Depression Scale) – including those related to anxiety – to brain scan images that showed clusters of the protein plaques.

Being immersed in the study of those data over the course of five years, the research team found that as brains were more filled to the brim with the harmful proteins, anxiety levels rose as well, more so than any of the other depression symptoms.

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,” said Brigham and Women's Hospital geriatric psychiatrist and first author Dr. Nancy Donovan.

This suggests that anxiety symptoms could be a manifestation of Alzheimer's disease prior to the onset of cognitive impairment. 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,” she added.

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