Is Anxiety An Early Indication of Alzheimer’s?

By Kelly Burch 01/17/18

A new study examined the link between anxiety and a protein that has been linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Young woman suffering from anxiety/sudden fear

An increase in feelings of anxiety could indicate the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease up to 10 years before more pronounced symptoms such as memory lapses begin showing up, researchers have found. 

The study, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, looked at amyloid beta, a protein that has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. People who had increased levels of amyloid beta in their brains were more likely to start experiencing symptoms of anxiety. 

Although depression has long been seen as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, this study was unique in looking at specific symptoms of depression and eventually focusing on anxiety. 

"Rather than just looking at depression as a total score, we looked at specific symptoms such as anxiety," geriatric psychiatrist and lead study author Nancy Donovan from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, said in a press release. "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.”

According to Science Alert, build-ups of amyloid beta in the brain are believed to be primarily responsible for the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. As the protein collects in the brain it can block and interfere with communication between neurons, causing the cognitive impairment that is the primary symptom of the disease.

The new study suggests that the protein can begin impacting brain function well before it interrupts cognition. "This suggests that anxiety symptoms could be a manifestation of Alzheimer's disease prior to the onset of cognitive impairment,” Donovan said. 

Knowing that anxiety could be an early indication of the disease could help fast-track treatments and therapies that can slow the progress of the degenerative disease. 

"If further research substantiates anxiety as an early indicator, it would be important for not only identifying people early on with the disease, but also, treating it and potentially slowing or preventing the disease process early on,” Donovan said. 

Anxiety symptoms alone aren’t enough to show that someone will develop Alzheimer’s disease, but knowing the connection could help doctors identify patients who are at risk, when taken as part of an overall health screening, Donovan told The Boston Herald

“As a screening mechanism, it’s probably not sensitive enough,” she said, “but if you can measure multiple risk factors in the same individuals, then it becomes more useful.”

The research also shows that doctors should pay close attention to brain changes, which could be hinting at a more serious problem down the road. 

“There’s quite a bit of debate in the field about this,” Donovan said. “This is not a definitive result, but it does strengthen the argument that neuropsychiatric changes might be associated with this amyloid.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.