Among both men and women 65 years and older, anxiety appears to predict a decline in verbal memory, which refers to the ability to remember words.
“Adequate treatment of anxiety symptoms could potentially beneficially influence the risk for developing neurodegenerative disease,” wrote Sebastian Köhler, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Maastricht University, and colleagues.
Köhler and colleagues analyzed data on 918 participants who were 50 years of age or older in the Maastricht Aging Study, a longitudinal population-based study of factors associated with cognitive aging in the Netherlands.
The researchers measured the anxiety symptoms of the participants at baseline, using the anxiety subscale of the Symptom Check List-90 (SCL-90). The researchers recorded anxiety scores along a continuous scale of severity; they classified patients in the highest quartile as having “high anxiety.” The participants also underwent neuropsychological testing, which measured executive function, memory, speed of information processing, and verbal fluency. During a 12-year follow-up, the cohort was tested every three years.
Overall, being in the highest quartile on anxiety symptoms (“high anxiety”) did not predict a faster decline in executive functioning over time. However, among women, increasing severity of anxiety was associated with a worse cognitive trajectory. A similar sex-specific effect was found for processing speed and verbal fluency.
In contrast, faster decline in verbal memory was associated with “high anxiety” irrespective of sex but was more pronounced in those 65 years and older.
“Further longitudinal research is needed to fully understand the relationship between anxiety and cognition including potentially mediating mechanisms,” the researchers wrote.
For more information, see the Psychiatric News article “Worsening Anxiety in Older Adults May Precede Alzheimer's.”