Why High Anxiety Can Lead to High Risk of Dementia

While many studies have looked at the link between dementia and conditions such as neuroticism and depression, recent research led by the University of Southern California explored the link between dementia and anxiety. The results weren’t pretty.

Those who have experienced high anxiety at any time in their lives have a 48 percent increased risk of developing dementia when compared to those who have not. The study stressed that a link between anxiety and dementia was apparent, even when depression was not part of the mix. The research was published online at Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The association between anxiety and dementia was also apparent without regard to the cause of the anxiety. That means it could potentially include high levels of driving anxiety as well as driving phobia and fears that increase overall anxiety levels.

The Research

Findings were based on a review of information from the Swedish Adoption Twin Study of Aging, which contained 28 years of data. The study sample included data from 1,082 participants, made up of fraternal and identical twins, who answered questionnaires, underwent in-person tests every three years, and were continuously screened for dementia throughout the study.

Anxiety levels were measured by self-reporting from the participants, and levels may or may have not met the threshold required to clinically diagnose a psychiatric anxiety disorder. Regardless, a twin who developed dementia had a history that contained higher levels of anxiety than the twin who did not develop dementia.

Study co-author and USC professor of psychology Margaret Gatz noted those who developed dementia were those who:

  • Typically operate at high levels of anxiety
  • Experience anxiety symptoms beyond the usual levels
  • Are generally frantic, fidgety and frazzled people

The Explanation

Study lead author and USC postdoctoral research associate of psychology Andrew Petkus provided an explanation for the dementia-anxiety link. He said those with high levels of anxiety tend to have higher levels of cortisol and other stress hormones.

Research has shown that chronically high levels of cortisol can damage areas of the brain. Two affected areas include the hippocampus, where memory is stored, and the frontal cortex, where high-level thinking takes place.

Genetic factors may also be at work, researchers noted. The association between anxiety and dementia was stronger between fraternal twins than identical twins when only one of the twins developed dementia.

The USC research team hopes to continue their exploration into the topic to asses if anxiety treatments earlier in life have the power to lower the risk of dementia later in life.

The General Take on Anxiety

Whether it’s driving anxiety, range anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder, anxiety in general typically doesn’t get the same attention as other disorders. Study author Petkus says this is especially true in older adults. He notes depression appears to be more obvious in adults, but it is typically episodic. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more likely to be an ongoing, lifelong problem, one that’s often “written off” as part of an individual’s personality.


Photo Credit: English106 via Compfight cc