At one time or another you’ve probably said, “I was so worried I thought I was going to lose my mind” – or words to that effect.
It turns out those words may be all too true, because chronic anxiety speeds up cognitive decline.
While psychological problems including depression have been linked to an increased risk of dementia, research on anxiety has only been published in the last twelve months. I guess it’s no surprise they discovered that constantly being anxious is a drain on your brain power.
The More You Worry, The More You Damage Your Memory
The first study looked at patients already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the occasional memory loss which affects up to one in five people over the age of 65.
This condition is characterized by thinking and memory changes that are noticeable by the patients or people they associate with, but these changes don’t disrupt everyday life.
Doctors assessed 376 such patients aged between 55 and 91 every six months for three years. The participants received brain scans, cognitive tests, and were questioned about levels of anxiety and depression.
The research team found that anxiety by itself speeded up the rate of cognitive decline. Those with mild anxiety saw a one third (33%) increase in Alzheimer’s risk. This rose to over three quarters (78%) for those with moderate anxiety. Patients with severe anxiety incurred a whopping 135% increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
The researchers also discovered that those who suffered anxiety at any time during the study period experienced greater levels of brain shrinkage in regions that are critical for hanging on to memories.
Anxious People 1½ Times More Likely to Develop Dementia
In the second study, published in November 2015, 1,082 Swedish twins — who did not have dementia at the start of the study — received regular anxiety and dementia assessments over a period of 28 years.
The researchers found that symptoms of anxiety were associated with an increased risk of dementia. Those who experienced high levels of anxiety at any time during the study period had a 48% increased risk compared to those that had low levels. This anxiety-dementia association was independent of the role of depression.
According to lead researcher Andrew Petkus from the Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, “Anxiety, especially in older adults, has been relatively understudied compared to depression. Depression seems more evident in adulthood, but it’s usually episodic. Anxiety though, tends to be a chronic lifelong problem, and that’s why people tend to write off anxiety as part of someone’s personality.”
Dr. Linda Mah, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, who led the earlier study, said that people with memory problems should be routinely screened for anxiety. For the most part, this is not happening. Memory clinics only screen for depression.
What Can You Do?
Since there is no evidence that treating anxiety with drugs would be of value, Dr. Mah said “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 problems in Alzheimer’s, and this is showing promise.”
In other words, take up meditation, prayer, yoga, Tai Chi and similar practices that are known to reduce anxiety.
I can attest that these relaxation and centering techniques DO work and you should absolutely make time in your day – every day – to put at least one or two of them into practice.
About 20 years ago there was a best-selling book called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. . .and It’s All Small Stuff.” Good advice. Remember the problems you were upset about ten years ago; does any of it matter now?
Some things are so big we’re going to worry about them – a loved one’s serious illness, for example. Or an unhappy marriage or a dissatisfying job. Do what you can to fix things, and learn to let go of the things you can’t.
They’re not worth permanently damaging your mind.