If it feels like an increasing number of older people have Alzheimer’s or dementia these days, you’re not imagining things. One in three seniors in the United States dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. That means it kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. But a new study suggests that late-term dementia, the most common form of dementia, might be caused, in part, by mid-life anxiety. The logic follows, then, that reducing anxiety, especially in mid-life, can reduce your chances of developing dementia as you age.
What is dementia?
Dementia describes a group of symptoms that associated with memory decline. Alzheimer’s is just one form of dementia, but other forms — such as vascular dementia which happens as a result of a stroke — are possible in aging populations. Alzheimer’s disease causes 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, and contrary to popular opinion, mental decline is not part of the normal aging process.
Anxiety may play a role in dementia
New research from the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine in the United Kingdom suggests that there’s a strong link between mental health problems and late-onset dementia. This form of dementia is the most prevalent and affects people around the age of 65.
The study focuses on a systematic review of studies that investigated the causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The review also acknowledges research that shows depression can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by nearly twofold. Since anxiety often occurs with depression, the correlation makes sense. According to the study, a significant number of people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and late-onset dementia report living with anxiety an average of 10 years before they receive a diagnosis of dementia.
We have long known that anxiety accompanies dementia more often than not. Until recently, experts believed that dementia caused anxiety. As one’s awareness and memory begin to fade, it makes sense that anxiety would likely result. This new research suggests it may be the other way around. While it’s still unclear how much anxiety impacts one’s likelihood of developing dementia later in life, it certainly sheds light on a reversible and preventable risk factor.
Dementia risk factors
A number of risks factor into the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s, from age to genetics. Some are preventable, but the largest risk factors are not.
The greatest known risk factor for the disease remains one’s age. One in nine people over 65 have Alzheimer’s, while the occurrence increases to nearly one-third of people age 85 and older, according to Alzheimer’s Association.
If an immediate family member — parent or sibling — has Alzheimer’s, you’re more likely to develop the disease than people who do not have an immediate family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The risk also increases if more than one of your family members has dementia.
Scientists have conducted extensive research into the genetic influence on Alzheimer’s and dementia. It turns out that two types of genes can cause Alzheimer’s disease. Risk genes indicate an increased, but not guaranteed, likelihood of developing the disease. However, if you have deterministic genes, a gene sequence that determines that you will have the disease, you will develop it. Again, family history is a great indicator of your risk of dementia, so if your family doesn’t have a history of the disease, then you’re unlikely to develop it based on your genetics.
Injury and bodily damage
There seems to be a strong link between serious head trauma and the development of dementia. This is especially true for people who have repeated head injuries that cause a loss of consciousness. Likewise, vascular damage to blood vessels, caused by heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke or high cholesterol, increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Anxiety and dementia
In light of recent research, it appears that anxiety precedes dementia by anywhere from two to nearly 12 years, with an average of 10 years between diagnoses. While more study is needed to investigate the correlation further, based on what we already know about the inflammatory nature of anxiety and stress, it can’t hurt to practice mindfulness and reduce your anxiety through natural methods. Yoga, meditation, reflexology and even some herbs can help you keep anxiety in check.
The key is healthy aging
Most doctors agree that dementia and Alzheimer’s develop as a result of multiple factors interacting with one another. Although we can’t change our genes or age, we can change how well we age. Based on the latest research, reducing anxiety and stress seems to be a significant way to protect yourself from developing late-onset dementia.
A healthy diet, remaining active, enjoying a healthy social life, and abstaining from tobacco and excessive alcohol use can all help promote healthy aging.
What’s your favorite way to reduce anxiety and stress? Leave your comments below!