Both anxiety and depression are debilitating mental health conditions that reduce one’s quality of life. While focusing on general anxiety alone, approximately 3.3 million Americans live with this disorder — not to mention depression, which is said to affect more than 15 million American adults.
Considering mood and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, it’s important to focus on how these conditions influence overall health. Although highly treatable, it’s estimated that only around one-third of those suffering receive treatment. What does this mean in terms of brain health — is it possible that these conditions may contribute to dementia?
How Anxiety and Depression Influence the Brain
Without getting too in-depth, it’s crucial that we focus on how the brain is affected by both anxiety and depression and what that means for overall function and development. Are the effects short-term, as long as treatment is accessed — or do these disorders cause lasting effects?
Unfortunately, based on past research, it does appear that when left untreated, depression and anxiety disorders can, in fact, damage your brain. Although there are many contributing factors, when it all boils down, psychiatric disorders are essentially ‘bad’ for your brain.
Study after study, researchers have found that when suffering from these disorders, as well as more severe conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, there are measurable changes throughout key areas of the brain. More specifically, when studying common day-to-day depression, abnormalities are found within key areas of the brain, including the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is known as the ‘memory center’ of the brain, so concerns surrounding degenerative brain disorders are warranted. Issues have also been reported within the anterior cingulate (the conflict-resolution center), as well as the prefrontal cortex (the area associated with planning and executive function).
Could Anxiety and Depression Cause Dementia?
At this time, the core cause associated with dementia, more specifically Alzheimer’s, is not yet fully understood. It is more than likely a combination of factors, which are reflected in the type of dementia that develops. With that being said, there are a number of identifying factors that are believed to increase your overall risk.
Based on prior research, the short answer to this question is yes — anxiety and depression may, in fact, increase your risk of dementia. While focusing on one key study, researchers reviewed the medical records of more than 70,000 men and women across the UK. All of these individuals had taken part in an ongoing health survey.
When this study began, in 1994, the average age was 55 years old. These individuals were given a number of health-related questionnaires, examining issues such as poor social functioning. These general measures of psychological health mean that the greater the score, the greater the likelihood of depression and anxiety.
A decade later, at the end of the study, more than 10,000 participants had passed away due to various causes. According to death records, 455 had died with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. While looking at the data, those with higher mental distress scores, were more likely to have died from dementia, in comparison to psychologically health participants.
It was reported that the link between psychological distress and dementia were independent of other variables, including smoking, alcohol abuse, physical ailments, and years of schooling. The researchers believe that chronic psychological distress, may lead to continuously high levels of the stress hormone known as cortisol.
Although stress is a natural reaction, we’re now seeing the devastating effects associated with chronic stress. Having toxic effects on the brain, more specifically the hippocampus, anxiety and depression may contribute to poor memory in the future. Of course, stress also interferes with your cardiovascular health — which can be a key risk factor for dementia.
Reducing Chronic Stress Is Critical to Brain Health
As our lives become more and more hectic and overwhelming, chronic stress is most certainly taking its toll. A more recent review, published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry, found a distinct overlap between chronic stress and the development of neuropsychiatric disorders, including both depression and Alzheimer’s.
The researchers were interested in anxiety disorders and their effect on neurocircuitry. When experiencing stress and anxiety, it’s clear that changes in the brain occur, including structural and functional degeneration in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. In turn, this may increase your risk of dementia.
In order to reduce stress levels on a day-to-day basis, you need to:
- Increase physical exercise — As you become more active, your body will naturally produce ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters that ease symptoms of both anxiety and depression. For some individuals, exercise has been shown to work as well as medications, producing long-lasting effects.
- Speak to someone — If you are feeling overwhelmed, do not bottle up your emotions. You do not necessarily need to seek therapy, but speaking to a loved one can make a world of difference. If you do not feel comfortable speaking to your loved ones, there are plenty of anxiety related forums where individuals provide support. Sometimes, it can be helpful to hear how others are coping and you too can implement their effective strategies.
- Try relaxation techniques — Many individuals are now trying new relaxation techniques, including yoga and meditation. For some, an old hobby, such as painting or knitting promotes relaxation. Others rely on a stress diary to release their thoughts and emotions. Find something that truly helps you relax and be sure to include this activity or type of therapy in your regular routine.
Whether you were concerned about dementia or not, living with depression and/or anxiety can significantly reduce your quality of life. There are effective treatment options available, so it’s important to explore your options. You no longer need to wake up feeling sad or anxious. Take action today to not only reduce your risk of future dementia, but improve your life.