Health

Anxiety Linked to Alzheimers, Students Not At Risk

By Kelly Fisher, staff writer

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If you’re crossing the street and a large bus is speeding your way with no sign of stopping, what allows you to get out of the way, and ultimately protects you?

Anxiety.

Dr. Erika Gray, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Outreach Coordinator of Counseling and Psychological Services at Hudson Health Center, points out that anxiety is “incredibly common,” especially in the college environment.

“Anxiety is actually the number one most reported symptom in our clients (at Hudson Health Center), and I would say even in the general population, not just college age students,” she said.

But when anxiety progresses in older adults, it could contribute to another health problem entirely.

A study published online in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry on Oct. 29, 2014 found that those who suffer from moderate to severe anxiety are at double the risk of developing Alzheimers disease, a developmental disorder.

Canadian Researcher Dr. Linda Mah conducted the study and found that subjects with mild anxiety symptoms had a 33 percent increase in their chance of developing Alzheimers disease, those with moderate anxiety had a 78 percent increased risk and those with severe anxiety had a 135 percent increased risk.

The study examined 376 people between the ages of 55 and 91 with amnestic mild cognitive impairment, and controlled variables such as depression and cognitive decline.

With amnestic mild cognitive impairment, the patient forgets important information that he or she could have easily recalled, “such as appointments, conversations and recent events,” while nonamnestic mild cognitive disorder impairs decision-making, judgement of time or sequence of events to complete a task and/or visual perception, according to the Alzheimers Association.

The participants, from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, were followed over the course of three years, checking in with the researchers every six months.

Mah could not be reached for comment on her study by press time.

But Gray, who read the study, pointed out that the it is not claiming that anxiety causes Alzheimers, but it was correlational.

“There’s a ‘chicken-and-egg’ kind of thing there, so you have to be careful with that research,” she said. “It was very solid research, very well-done, but… I think you have to be really careful whenever you try to draw those links. Again, anxiety is so common that I think you’d be hard-pressed, at least at this point to make a one-to-one direct link.

“If you’re anxious, then you’re going to worry about one more thing.”

Dr. Julie Suhr, Professor and Director of Clinical Training at Ohio University, also found there to be a ‘chicken-and-egg’ phenomenon in the study, which did not examine the factors that she brought up.

Alzheimers is typically associated with memory loss, but also affects the way the individual manages stress, and therefore, their levels of anxiety fluctuate. So, she said, is it the anxiety that enhances the affects of Alzheimers, or does the Alzheimers cause more stress and fuel the anxiety?

“You couldn’t not have stress and operate as a human being,” Suhr said.

Some Alzheimers patients, however, do lose the ability to function in their everyday routines. Most families notice this over what Suhr calls ‘holiday syndrome,’ in which the family sees grandma or grandpa in the summer, and by the time the family sees their grandparents again for the holidays, they see changes in their memory and ability to function.

That is why, she said, many referrals come through to specialists and doctors in January to assess for Alzheimers disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, 41.8 percent of residents in assisted living facilities had Alzheimers and other dementias in 2010.

It was the sixth-leading cause of death in 2011.

“One of the best things, through decades or so, has been an increased awareness of Alzheimers so that people are diagnosed earlier,” she said. “But there is also an unfortunate side effect of that people get over-focused on it.

“I do see family members who watch a parent decline and then notice they’re having trouble coming up with names, and they think, ‘that’s how it started with dad! I have Alzheimers!’ So they overreact and they become fearful and perceive themselves to be showing the signs of Alzheimers and that could actually lead in a negative way to an overactivity.”

Alzheimers is associated with aging, but may also be caused by genetic vulnerability, bad cardiovascular health, an unhealthy diet, high blood pressure, diabetes and anything that can compromise brain function, such as drinking or drugs.

Multiple head injuries, such as concussions, may also be a risk factor.

Just by aging, Suhr guessed, there will be an increased rate of Alzheimers disease in the upcoming generation, which is supported by the Alzheimers Association.

She acknowledged that people are more health-conscious and living longer, which can help minimize the risk and delay the onset of Alzheimers, but because of people “calling things Alzheimers that aren’t Alzheimers” and more people growing old, there will be an increase.

“It has good and bad sides,” she said. “If I had to guess alone, though, on the basis of age, we will have more because we can’t do anything about it. We have yet to be able to stop it, or even really keep it in it’s tracks. Even when we control risk factors, unfortunately. It’s a progressive, degenerative disorder.”

She did not make any predictions of an increase based on anxiety.

When stress takes hold in a college environment, it could be from worrying about a grandparent with a disease such as Alzheimers, a situation between friends or family members, grades and more.

“I think a lot of my colleagues are surprised (to see) how difficult the crises can be for students and how many students are struggling to do the best that they can here while having a mental illness (such as an anxiety disorder) as well,” Gray said.

Hudson Health Center offers counseling for students who feel that their anxiety is at a level that is more than they can manage. Students may be counseled individually or in groups with a psychologist.

The services are free if students have not waived their wellbeing fee, which will also cover psychiatry if medication is needed, and sessions are $20 each if the fee was waived. Drop-in consultations are free.

The majority of the clients at Hudson have the wellbeing fee, Gray said.

Because everyone has anxiety in some way or another, she suggested trying to let anxiety dissipate on it’s own before seeking counseling, and should then seek counseling when it becomes more than manageable.

“My recommendation would be if you’re feeling anxious and you realize that your anxiety is starting to impact your ability to function… Please come in and see us,” she said.

For example, a student who feels that he cannot go to class after running late and his grade becomes impacted, or if a student has unsettling thoughts at night that impacts her sleep schedule, then Hudson can help.

Gray added that if a student wants to help a friend through their anxiety, they have to be supportive of their treatment without becoming their primary caregiver.

“You may have a friend who has anxiety who’s getting treatment who says things that may sound illogical like, ‘if I’m looking for reassurance, don’t give it to me,’ ” she said. “You need to let your friends know that giving a lot of reassurance isn’t going to help. It neutralizes the anxiety in the moment, but overall, it doesn’t allow the person to face their anxiety and realize that they’re okay on their own.

“Face the (anxiety) bully, walk in, face the fear, come in here and we help teach you how to do that.”


Kelly is a junior who cannot believe she is already more than halfway done with her time in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Aside from College Green, she spends her time writing for OU’s College of Health Sciences and Professions and working on the Young African Leaders Initiative through the Institute for International Journalism…

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