As if the day-to-day physical and mental consequences of persistent anxiety weren’t distressing enough, recent research has added another compelling reason to get treatment for this psychiatric disorder. A study published in the February 2013 issue of the journal Family Practice suggests that a diagnosis of anxiety may triple a person’s risk for dementia.
The researchers analyzed the medical records of 1,753 adults aged 65 and older for evidence of an association between anxiety and a future dementia diagnosis and adjusted for other risk factors for dementia to come up with their findings. A prior diagnosis of depression—which often occurs in conjunction with anxiety—also increased risk for dementia, but to a lesser extent, according to the study.
“The take-home message of this study is that people who experience persistent anxiety, especially older individuals, should seek treatment to protect their brain from negative effects that can increase dementia risk,” says M. Cornelia Cremens, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at MGH.
“The study’s findings add still more evidence to what we know from earlier research about the harmful effects of anxiety. These findings suggest that anxiety can damage a person’s overall health, shorten lifespan, and increase risk for heart disease and cerebrovascular problems that can affect brain function.
Anxiety disorders are associated with multiple factors that are linked with impaired attention, concentration, and memory, such as increases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, poor sleep, depression, brain atrophy, accumulation of fatty plaques in the brain’s vasculature, and elevated stroke risk.”
Know the symptoms
Only half of the estimated 40 million American adults who suffer from anxiety disorders in any given year receive treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. While occasional worry is normal, worry that causes excessive distress, interferes with daily functioning, or lasts for six months or longer calls for a professional medical assessment.
Worrying a great deal, often with little or no reason, and having difficulty controlling worrying even when it is clearly excessive are two important symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Other symptoms may include:
• Feeling tense, restless, or irritable
• Having trouble concentrating or remembering
• Trouble falling or staying asleep
• Feeling lightheaded or short of breath
• Excessive sweating, muscle tension
• Headaches or gastrointestinal problems
If you experience chronic or excessive anxiety, you should contact your primary care physician. Should a thorough checkup rule out the possibility that medication side effects, dietary factors, or a medical condition may be causing your symptoms, you may be referred to a mental health professional for further assessment and treatment. Psychotherapy, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or selective serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (but generally not sedatives such as benzodiazepines, which may impair cognition in older indviduals), or both may be recommended to help relieve anxiety.
“People with anxiety can also take steps on their own to reduce their feelings of worry and distress,” Dr. Cremens adds. “Learning mindfulness meditation (see What You Can Do) is an excellent way to lower levels of stress and calm your fears.
“You may also benefit from making lifestyle and behavioral changes, such as avoiding anxiety-promoting substances including caffeine, nicotine, and certain over-the-counter cold preparations; eating a nutritious, low-calorie diet; exercising regularly; and distracting yourself from your worries by pursuing hobbies, socializing and engaging in other enjoyable activities. As much as possible, avoid dwelling on things you can’t control. Instead, identify and address the problems you can do something about and work to resolve them one by one.”