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Seniors' Health: Negative emotions linked with memory problems

Persistent anxiety and depression increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment in older adults

Older adults who suffer from chronic negative emotions such as anxiety and depression may be at increased risk for developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a transition stage between the mental changes of normal aging and more serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

MCI can affect memory as well as language skills, attention span and other cognitive skills. Some people with MCI go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, but not everyone.

Dr. Robert Wilson and his colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that the people most prone to psychological distress are 40 per cent more likely to develop MCI than the least distress-prone people. “This study shows that negative emotions like depression and anxiety are associated with increased vulnerability for this disease,” Wilson says.

The researchers studied more than 1,200 older adults who did not initially have MCI or dementia. All completed an assessment of their inclination to be emotionally distressed, and were followed for up to 12 years. The researchers used a distress scale ranging from zero to 48, on which the average score was 15.6. Over the course of the study, 482 participants developed MCI. For every one-point increase on the distress scale, the risk of developing MCI increased by two per cent.

Wilson says psychological distress is a normal personality trait that everyone has in some degree, and that the study participants were functioning fine in the community. “These are not people who would necessarily be seeing a psychiatrist for their negative emotions. When people reach old age, persistent negative emotional states can truly impact their health and particularly their cognitive status, and probably deserve more medical attention than they’re routinely given.”

He adds that while it would be good to reduce negative emotions, such personality traits may not respond well to treatment. However, the study results could provide clues to how and why MCI develops. “Understanding the biological link between chronic distress and loss of cognition in old age might suggest new ways of trying to intervene to delay symptoms or prevent disease onset.”