Many people dismiss anxiety as a typical sign of aging.
You've probably done it. Think about the last time you visited your parents or another loved one in a senior living community. Did you notice changes in appetite, poor sleep, or trouble concentrating? Did they hoard food or avoid participating in any social activities?
It turns out, these are all markers for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – the most common of all anxiety disorders. And people 65 and older are more likely to suffer from it, often without help.
One reason for concern with anxiety in older folks is the connection to Alzheimer's.
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Alzheimer's is a form of dementia that slowly erases your short-term memory, and eventually erases the memories of family, friends, and even how to perform day-to-day tasks like bathing or eating.
It happens when your brain cells start to function improperly.
One theory is that the brain loses the ability to filter out debris and damaged proteins. That can lead to things like plaques. Plaques are clumps of proteins that stick to the brain's nerve cells and damage them.
For years, we assumed anxiety was only a by-product of Alzheimer's. And that makes sense... as our brains change, neurotransmitters, like those responsible for moods, don't work properly.
Now we know that anxiety isn't just a byproduct... It's also a precursor.
The research starts with a study out of the Washington University School of Medicine. Scientists looked at the connection between high stress levels and Alzheimer's progression.
They found that high stress triggers the release of a signaling chemical in the brain called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF releases compounds called amyloid-beta peptides, which form those plaques we see in Alzheimer's.
A brand-new study out of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston took this idea further. Researchers looked at 270 adults aged from 62 to 90. Participants had brain scans every year for five years to measure levels of those compounds. Researchers also tracked anxiety and depression.
What they saw was that participants who had higher levels of anxiety over those five years also had more amyloid-beta in their brains.
What's more, the researchers believe that testing folks for anxiety early on may help them catch Alzheimer's sooner. That means starting treatment sooner.
Even better, given the role of CRF and its relation to stress, treating anxiety early might also help slow Alzheimer's. It's a novel idea to treat anxiety as a way to alleviate and possibly prevent dementia symptoms.
While we wait for more studies to confirm these finding, here are ways to...
Start Easing Your Anxiety Today
In the meantime, fighting anxiety and stress is crucial to your overall health. As we know, stress causes a host of diseases as it lowers your immune system and ramps up inflammation. And the sooner you start to take care of your mental health, the better.
But don't reach for the medications yet...
Longtime readers are familiar with my stance on medications for anxiety. The problem is that doctors overprescribe drugs like Xanax and Valium... which often cause more harm in the elderly population.
A Canadian study published in the medical journal BMJ found that taking benzodiazepines (like Xanax and Valium) for three to six months increased dementia risk by 32%. Worse, taking them longer than six months increased risk by 84%.
Instead, try some of natural ways to help ease anxiety and depression:
- Enjoy scents like rose and lavender
- Eat foods in the Mediterranean diet
- Practice good sleep habits
- Listen to music
No matter which stress-reduction tactic you start, make sure to take time for your mental health. Too often folks overlook problems like anxiety. But with new insight into how it relates to dementia, you can't afford to let it go unchecked.
What We're Reading...
- More on the dementia-anxiety link.
- Harvard Health offers insight into caring for older patients with anxiety.
- Something different: Would you use a supermarket with no checkouts?
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
January 23, 2018