Creeping levels of stress and anxiety could be a sign of impending Alzheimer’s disease, a new study has found. Scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that increased anxiety corresponded with higher levels of beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that forms plaques in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Using data from the Harvard Aging Brain Study, researchers looked at almost 300 cognitively normal individuals between the ages of 62 and 90 years old. For five years, participants were scanned for beta-amyloid levels and screened for depression using a test called the Geriatric Depression Scale, which is used to detect depression in older adults. Patients were assigned a score using the scale, but researchers also looked at specific symptoms of depression: apathy-anhedonia, dysphoria and anxiety.
“Rather than just looking at depression as a total score, we looked at specific symptoms such as anxiety, said first author Nancy Donovan, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “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 Donovan.
Depression and the neuropsychiatric symptoms that go along with it (anxiety amongst them) have been shown to be associated with risk of Alzheimer’s in the past. If further research shows that anxiety is a manifestation of Alzheimer’s before memory problems begin, Donovan says it could be a way to not only identify people with the disease earlier, but also treating the anxiety could potentially slow or prevent Alzheimer’s much further down the road.