It’s a finding that’s bound to make anxious people even more concerned for their health. A study conducted by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has identified a link between higher levels of amyloid beta in the brain and heightened anxiety.
The results of the research – which were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry – are consistent with the idea that neuropsychiatric symptoms could manifest themselves before any cognitive deficits are identified in patents with Alzheimer’s disease. If validated by additional studies, the finding could support early diagnosis efforts for dementia.
The preclinical phase of Alzheimer’s disease – which can last up to 10 years before the onset of mild cognitive impairment – is very difficult to detect. But because this period is characterized by the accumulation of beta amyloid and tau proteins, it could be the most effective time to start a patient on medication to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
The researchers in the current study looked at the amount of beta amyloid in the brains of cognitively normal older adults, along with symptoms of depression, over time. In all, 270 adults between the ages of 62 and 90 participating in the Harvard Aging Brain Study.
In studying this patient population, they found that patients with higher levels of beta amyloid also showed worsening symptoms of anxiety.
“Rather than just looking at depression as a total score, we looked at specific symptoms such as anxiety,” said Dr. Nancy Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and primary author on the study. “When compared to other symptoms of depression such as sadness or loss of interest, anxiety symptoms increased over time in those with higher amyloid beta levels in the brain.
“This suggests that anxiety symptoms could be a manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease prior to the onset of cognitive impairment,” said Donovan. “If further research substantiates anxiety as an early indicator, it would be important for not only identifying people early on with the disease, but also, treating it and potentially slowing or preventing the disease process early on.”
Since Donovan and her colleagues only followed up with the participants for a few years, longer-term studies will be necessary to further support the link between Alzheimer’s and anxiety. If the link is substantiated, anxiety could be used as an early marker for dementia.