The results are based on a study of North American patients with mild cognitive impairment associated with memory problems. At first, all were screened for anxiety and depression, brain MRI scans and blood tests.
Of 339 patients, 72 progressed to Alzheimer’s disease in the next few years. Those with higher early anxiety levels tended to progress more quickly – as did patients with lower tissue volume in two areas of the brain involved in memory and learning.
Genes mattered too: People with a gene variant linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease – ApoE4 – also had a faster decline, compared to those with different variants.
Even with these other factors taken into account, however, anxiety was independently linked to faster progression, Spampinato said.
That alone, however, doesn’t mean that anxiety directly worsens cognitive problems.
“People living with mild cognitive impairment may experience anxiety, but what is not clear at this point is whether controlling or reducing anxiety can slow cognitive decline,” said Heather Snyder, Vice President of Medical and Scientific Operations for the Alzheimer’s Association.
She agreed with Sano on the importance of acknowledging anxiety anyway.
“For people living with mild cognitive impairment or dementia,” said Snyder, “managing anxiety and stress is an important aspect of caregiving.”
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends certain steps for patients and families: simplify the daily routine, calm the family environment, and regularly participate in enjoyable activities – such as going for walks, gardening and listening to music.
Talking to a health care provider is always an option, Sano said.
“Sometimes older people are reluctant to talk about anxiety and depression,” she noted. “But I think it’s a mistake.”
The study is expected to be presented on Monday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, which will be held online. Results reported at meetings are generally considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The Alzheimer’s Association has more on anxiety and restlessness.
SOURCES: Maria Vittoria Spampinato, MD, professor, radiology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; Mary Sano, PhD, professor, psychiatry and director, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, New York City; Heather Snyder, PhD, vice president, medical and scientific operations, Alzheimer’s Association, Chicago; Radiological Society of North America, Online Meeting Presentation, November 30, 2020