Anxiety disorders are common in the world and are believed to affect millions of people each year. However, as if these feelings of worry and fear weren't enough to deal with them, a new study suggests that older people who have worsening anxiety symptoms could be an early sign of Alzheimer's, or could be more likely to develop the disease.
Anxiety could be an early sign of Alzheimer's
The researchers found that increasing anxiety symptoms were related to higher levels of beta-amyloid, which is a protein associated with Alzheimer's disease, in the brains of older people with normal cognitive function.
The findings were recently published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia characterized by problems with memory and thinking, as well as changes in behavior.
It is estimated that about 5.5 million people in the US alone are living with Alzheimer's disease, of which about 5.4 million are over the age of 65.
The precise causes of Alzheimer's disease remain unclear, but scientists believe that beta-amyloid plays a key role. This is a protein that can form “plaques” that has been found to block the communication of nerve cells in the brains of people with Alzheimer's.
These plaques are considered a hallmark of the disease, and research has suggested that an increase in beta-amyloid levels can occur up to 10 years before the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.
According to the new study, anxiety could play an important role in increasing beta-amyloid levels among older adults.
Treating anxiety can slow Alzheimer's disease
Previous studies have suggested that depression and anxiety could be indicators of Alzheimer's disease, as symptoms of these mental health conditions often occur in the early stages of the disease.
The research included 270 adults between the ages of 62 and 90, with normal cognitive functioning, all of whom underwent a positron emission tomography scan at the baseline of the study and annually for 5 years of follow-up, to determine the levels of beta-amyloid in their brains.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression among adults were assessed using the 30-item Geriatric Depression Scale.
Adults who showed an increase in anxiety symptoms during the 5-year follow-up were also found to have higher levels of beta-amyloid in the brain. The researchers say this indicates that worsening anxiety could be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease.
If further research shows that anxiety is an early indicator, it would be important not only to identify people with the disease early on, but also to treat it and possibly slow or prevent the disease process at an early stage.
The scientists note that follow-up studies are required to determine whether older adults who experience increased anxiety symptoms actually develop Alzheimer's.
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