The findings are based on a study of North American patients with mild cognitive impairment that involved memory problems. At the outset, all underwent anxiety and depression screening, MRI brain scans and blood tests.
Of 339 patients, 72 progressed to Alzheimer’s over the next several years. Those with higher anxiety levels at the start tended to have a quicker progression — as did patients with lower tissue volume in two brain areas involved in memory and learning.
Genes mattered, too: People carrying a gene variant linked to higher Alzheimer’s risk — ApoE4 — also had a faster decline, compared to those with different variants.
Even with those other factors taken into account, though, anxiety was independently linked to a speedier progression, Spampinato said.
That alone, however, does not mean anxiety directly worsens cognitive problems.
“People living with mild cognitive impairment may experience anxiety, but what’s unclear at this point is whether controlling or reducing anxiety may slow cognitive decline,” said Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association.
She agreed with Sano on the importance of recognizing anxiety regardless.
“For individuals living with mild cognitive impairment or dementia,” Snyder said, “managing anxiety and stress is an important aspect of providing care.”
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends some steps for patients and families: Simplify daily routines, make the home environment calm, and regularly fit in pleasant activities — such as taking walks, gardening and listening to music.
Talking to a health care provider is always an option, too, Sano said.
“Sometimes older folks can be hesitant to talk about anxiety and depression,” she noted. “But I think that’s a mistake.”
The study is scheduled to be presented Monday at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual meeting, being held online. Findings reported at meetings are generally considered preliminary until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The Alzheimer’s Association has more on anxiety and agitation.
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, Nov. 30, 2020