Many studies have shown that stress, and anxiety which is often at the core of our stress, can lead to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Now, a recent study has shown that anxiety and stress can increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) turning into Alzheimer’s disease, as well.
People with mild cognitive impairment are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than the general population. Therefore, these findings suggest that while lowering stress is good for all of us, it’s vital for those who have MCI to keep stress levels low in order to decrease their risk of developing full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, studies estimate that around 10-20% of people aged 65 and older have MCI. Many individuals with MCI go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease within a few years of diagnosis. However, this recent study, which has been published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggests that anxiety speeds up cognitive decline in people with MCI.
Dr. Linda Mah, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a clinician-scientist at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute was lead investigator for this study.
Mah’s team studied 376 patients aged 55-91 with amnestic MCI over the course of approximately three years. These volunteers showed enough cognitive symptoms such as the inability to recall appointments, recent events or conversations to be diagnosed with MCI. These participants are also enrolled in the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).
The research team assessed the study participant’s levels of anxiety along with changes in their cognitive functioning and brain structure. The results of the analysis revealed that participants who had anxiety experienced a faster decline in cognitive function than those without anxiety, and that the speed of decline increased with the severity of anxiety.
The study showed that MCI patients with mild anxiety had a 33% increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Moderate anxiety was linked to a 78% Alzheimer’s risk, while severe anxiety increased Alzheimer’s risk by 135%.
Dr. Mah was quoted in an article on Medical News Today as saying, "Our findings suggest that clinicians should routinely screen for anxiety in people who have memory problems because anxiety signals that these people are at greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
"While there is no published evidence to demonstrate whether drug treatments used in psychiatry for treating anxiety would be helpful in managing anxiety symptoms in people with MCI or in reducing their risk of conversion to Alzheimer’s, we think that at the very least behavioral stress management programs could be recommended," Mah adds.
The takeaway from this MCI study as well as other research is that anxiety and stress have a negative effect not only on the body but on the brain. Whether or not we are showing signs of mild cognitive impairment or early stage Alzheimer’s disease, finding ways to manage our anxiety and stress levels would be wise. Since lifestyle changes have been increasingly shown to as least slow down the appearance of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, stress management should be added to the list of diet, exercise, socialization and brain stimulation.
There’s no cure for MCI. There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s. All we can do at this time is live in such a way that we may have a chance of slowing symptoms. Managing anxiety is certainly one that we should put at the top of our list.
Whiteman, W. (2014, November 11) Anxiety may speed up Alzheimer’s onset in people with mild cognitive impairment. Medical News Today. Retrieved from
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.