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Anxiety Disorders Could Lead to Alzheimer's

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerFebruary 27, 2018

A new study has found that increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression may be linked to an increase in beta-amyloid proteins, a hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Learn more about anxiety disorders, their signs and symptoms, and why researchers believe there is a link between the two conditions.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders affect nearly 40 million adults every year in the United States. Differing from normal feelings of anxiety and nervousness, anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses and their effects can be debilitating and disabling.

They include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and specific fears or phobias.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Excessive tension
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Heart palpitations
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Muscle tension
  • Overwhelming anxiety and fear
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shaking
  • Sweaty palms
  • Unrealistic worry

While the exact cause of these disorders is unknown, it is thought that childhood abuse, excessive use of caffeine or tobacco, a family history of anxiety and prolonged exposure to stressful situations can play a role in the development of anxiety disorders.

If detected, anxiety disorders can often be managed through cognitive behavioral therapy, lifestyle changes, medication and therapies.

Symptoms of Anxiety Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

A study published in the The American Journal of Psychiatry has found that increasing symptoms of anxiety may, in fact, be an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study found that as symptoms increased, so did levels of beta-amyloid proteins, a hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Geriatric psychiatrist and study author Nancy Donovan from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, says, “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 loss of interest or sadness, anxiety symptoms increased over time in those with higher amyloid beta levels in the brain.”

The study evaluated the anxiety levels and cognitive health of 270 cognitively healthy seniors over a period of 1-5 years, an average of 3.8 years. Individuals underwent PET imaging and yearly assessments using the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS). The study concluded that higher beta-amyloid amounts were associated with increasing anxious-depressive symptoms over time in cognitively healthy seniors.

Researchers know there is still much work to be done in understanding the link between anxiety and Alzheimer’s. In the absence of one widely used biomarker for early Alzheimer’s detection, they hope anxiety testing can be useful in identifying those at risk for the disease. Donovan admits, “This is not a definitive result, but it does strengthen the argument that neuropsychiatric changes might be associated with this amyloid.”

Have you seen a link between anxiety disorders and Alzheimer’s in a loved one? We would like to hear more about your experience in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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