Anxiety and Memory Loss—Is There a Connection?
Families whose loved one is living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related disorder often report that their loved one seems anxious much of the time. Anxiety can be a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders—and recent research suggests anxiety also might hasten the progression of memory loss.
The Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) recently published a study of people who have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a term used when a person has noticeable but mild memory problems. It’s important to know that MCI doesn’t inevitably progress to dementia. A study published by the American Academy of Neurology found that MCI can sometimes even be reversed.
The RSNA study sought to better understand whether anxiety hastens memory loss, or is merely a symptom. Study author Dr. Maria Vittoria Spampinato used MRI brain imaging to learn more about the relationship between anxiety and dementia. “Anxiety has been frequently observed in patients with mild cognitive impairment, although its role in disease progression is not well understood,” she reported. Her study revealed an association between memory loss and anxiety. Now her team is trying to pinpoint the connection.
“In this study, we wanted to see if anxiety had an effect on brain structure, or if the effect of anxiety was independent from brain structure in favoring the progression of disease,” said Dr. Spampinato, who is a professor of radiology at the Medical University of South Carolina. “We need to better understand the association between anxiety disorders and cognitive decline. We don’t know yet if the anxiety is a symptom—in other words, their memory is getting worse and they become anxious—or if anxiety contributes to cognitive decline. If we were able in the future to find that anxiety is actually causing progression, then we should more aggressively screen for anxiety disorders in the elderly.”
Diagnosing and Addressing Anxiety Disorders
Everyone worries sometimes. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t! And yes, growing older can give us more things to worry about—money, our health, perhaps the problems of other family members, and all the things happening in the world. But if chronic worrying is affecting your well-being and quality of life, or that of an older loved one, it’s time to get the problem checked out.
There are several types of anxiety disorders. People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) seem to worry nonstop all day, about lots of things. Panic disorder causes sudden, intense attacks of fear. People with social anxiety disorder (or social phobia) worry about feeling embarrassed and judged by others.
In addition to the RSNA study above, experts from the University of Southern California reported, “People who experienced high anxiety any time in their lives had a 48% higher risk of developing dementia.” And dementia isn’t the only health condition that can be intertwined with anxiety disorders. Sometimes an anxiety disorder can mimic another illness, such as digestive problems or even a heart attack. And just as often, anxiety is caused by an illness. It might be the first symptom a patient notices if they have a heart condition, hormonal disorder, inflammatory illness or one of almost 50 other health conditions.
Anxiety disorders raise the level of stress hormones in the body, robbing older adults of healthy sleep, harming their relationships, and raising their risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, digestive problems and even osteoporosis. Fortunately, anxiety disorders are treatable. Treatments include:
Psychotherapy—Cognitive behavioral therapy with a trained mental health professional can help patients understand the roots of their anxiety, and learn new thinking patterns to manage it. Group therapy, in-person or online, has been found to be particularly helpful for older adults with social anxiety disorders.
Medications—While geriatricians warn that medication shouldn’t be the first choice of treatment for older patients, several classes of drugs can be effective when combined with psychotherapy.
(On the other hand, some common medications seniors take for a variety of health conditions can increase anxiety, so have the doctor review all medications.)
Lifestyle changes—Exercise, spending more time with others, stress-management techniques, meditation, getting more sleep, improving diet and limiting alcohol may all lower a person’s anxiety level. And yes, the caffeine jitters are a real thing—it might be time to cut back on coffee consumption.
If you or a loved one lives in a senior living community, talk to staff about anxiety problems. The community can offer beneficial lifestyle suggestions to lower anxiety, as well as helping your loved one manage medications and health conditions. These days, many people of every age are feeling worried about things, but excessive anxiety can be treated.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care professional. Report anxiety problems to your doctor.