Can anxiety cause dementia? A discussion
The world we live in looks much more different than ever before.
The digital age, particularly the advent of the internet, has revolutionized our very way of life. It has made access to news and politics instantaneous. It has also allowed us to socialize and entertain ourselves in numerous ways and at all times. Many would claim we are better off than we have ever been.
While that may be the case, nobody can deny that this fast-tracked lifestyle does take a toll on the human mind. Factors such as joblessness, poverty, and increased competition in all walks of life don't do much to help either. People today face much more stress factors than those faced by people in the past. Thus, it comes as no surprise that mental health issues are far more rampant today than ever before.
With the given rise in mental health problems worldwide, we must talk about these issues and shed more light on their precipitating factors. Two of the critical diseases to discuss in these conversations are anxiety and dementia. So, what exactly are they, and is there any correlation between them? Let’s find out.
What is Anxiety?
Have you ever experienced momentary panic instigated by an insect or spider crawling on your hand? Or have you ever gotten into a heated argument with someone that almost led to an ill-advised fist-fight? If you have, you have experienced something called ‘stress.’ Stress is the body’s normal response to help it react to harmful stimuli. It results in a series of sympathetic hormonal and neuronal reactions that illicit a ‘flight or fight’ response.
Pathological stress is when this response persists for longer than it should. This can be due to various situations we face in life, such as emotional trauma or work, academic, financial, and social pressures. It is perfectly normal to feel stress. However, if it is allowed to persist, it could cause physical manifestations ranging from excessive sweating and headaches to increased blood pressure and elevated heart rate.
Anxiety can be thought of as an extreme case of pathological stress. It refers to a continuous state of mental tension and worry that is out of proportion to the situation-something a layman would call ‘overthinking.’ Anxiety comes in various degrees of severity. In generalized anxiety disorder, one feels excessive and often unsubstantiated stress. In more severe cases, this stress may manifest as debilitating phobias and panic attacks.
While one could cope with stress through relatively simple fixes such as exercising or taking up a hobby, a person with anxiety doesn’t have the same luxury. Sufferers must receive professional psychological help for the management of their condition and may even need medication to overcome their illness.
What is Dementia?
While most people know about the term mental health, they know very little of its details. As a result, millions suffer across the globe without knowing they need psychological assistance. Perhaps no disease explains why we need awareness as it pertains to mental health better than dementia.
Dementia is not a singular disease-it is a collection of symptoms, i.e., a syndrome. It refers to a slow deterioration of mental stature — those who have dementia insidiously loose cognitive functionality shown by a loss of memory and deduction skills. According to the WHO, 47.5 million people suffer from this disease, making it one of the most pressing mental health topics in the world.
The symptoms of dementia begin with minor forgetfulness, which progressively gets worse and could eventually become so bad that one forgets their name as well as those of their loved ones. The person could suffer from constant confusion and disorientation characterized by repetition, forgetting to bathe, and losing track of date and time. In its later stages, dementia cripples the mind and sufferers forget even the most basic tasks such as how to talk, walk and feed themselves. Once the disease progresses to this stage, these individuals are unable to speak, take care of themselves and keep constant attention.
There are multiple causes and risk factors for dementia, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease. This is a progressive disease characterized by protein deposition in brain tissue and worsening dementia. Countless cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s undiagnosed because these symptoms are shrugged off as a normal part of aging. While age is a significant risk factor for dementia, dementia is never a physiological part of the aging process.
The Relation of Anxiety to Dementia:
If one were to rationalize the relation of anxiety to dementia without any scientific knowledge it would go something like this: Those who suffer from anxiety have an ‘over-functioning’ brain which is prone to ‘wear out' sooner. Now while the underlying mechanism isn't that simple, research does seem to back the claim that long term anxiety could cause dementia.
The works of Dr. Linda Mah from the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences, Canada show a strong correlation for this assertion. According to this study, the risk for Alzheimer's increases by 33%, 78%, and 135% in mild, moderate, or severe anxiety, respectively.
A 2015 study by Dr. Robert H. Pietrzak suggests a possible mechanism for this phenomenon. It shows that high amyloid-beta levels are found in anxiety individuals. High amyloid levels are links to cognitive decline. This means that there is indeed a direct relation between anxiety and dementia.
Other suggested methods of this relationship could be the elevated cortisol levels and the weakened immune system due to stress and anxiety. While we may still be far from finding the cure for dementia, we now know controlling anxiety can delay if not prevent its onset. Those individuals with anxiety should be regularly screened for symptoms of dementia as well.
While the internet and all that comes with it may be one of the reasons for mental health issues, it is not going to go away any time soon. However, this powerful platform and its vast reach could be used for good as well through discussions like these. Spreading awareness is the first and most critical step we can take towards identifying the individuals at risk and the solutions to these problems.
That is why everyone needs to take part in this dialogue, speak their minds, and share their feelings. If we combine our efforts, we may be able to come up with a viable solution. After all, a billion heads are better than one.
*This blog post was written by Alycia Gordan.
ABOUT Alycia Gordan
Alycia Gordan is a freelance writer who loves to read and write articles on healthcare technology, fitness, and lifestyle. She is a tech junkie and divides her time between travel and writing. You can find her on Twitter: @meetalycia