People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are at an increased risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Among those with anxiety additionally, the risk rises even more, according to new research.
This is the first time anxiety has been linked with speedier cognitive decline in those with MCI. Specifically, MCI patients with mild anxiety had a 33 percent increased risk of Alzheimer’s while those with moderate or severe anxiety faced even steeper increases of 78 percent and 135 percent, respectively.
Among those with MCI and anxiety, rates of atrophy in the medial temporal lobe regions of the brain were greater than in those without anxiety symptoms. The medial temporal lobes play a role in memory formation and is also involved in Alzheimer’s disease. According to the study’s lead researcher:
“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 mild cognitive impairment or in reducing their risk of conversion to Alzheimer’s, we think that at the very least behavioral stress management programs could be recommended.
In particular, there has been research on the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction in treating anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms in Alzheimer’s –and this is showing promise.”
Not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s disease. In some cases, cognitive function can instead improve over time. For instance, about one-third of the neurons in your hippocampus – a brain region associated with memory, learning and emotions – are regularly renewed, which means you have a chance to strengthen your brain by leading a healthy lifestyle.
Even better, many of the same strategies that protect your brain are also useful for relieving stress, which can help to diminish feelings of anxiety. You can try:
- Staying positive: Laughter can lower stress hormones and stimulates your brain to produce more endorphins, neurotransmitters that make you feel happier.
- Meditating: Meditation may help lower your stress levels while prompting beneficial changes in your brain. Yoga and prayer are also beneficial.
- Exercising: Exercise releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins, helping to melt away stress while also boosting your brain health. Exercise is associated with increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – a protein that plays a role in creating new neurons.