Mid-life anxiety could lead to dementia, researchers find

Abnormal levels of stress in middle-age can speed up brain cell ageing, says study

People who suffer from moderate to severe anxiety during middle age could be more likely to develop dementia in later life, researchers in the UK have found.

An in-depth study of research into anxiety diagnosis has found that mid-life mental illnesses may be associated with dementia, with a gap of at least 10 years between the diagnoses.

However, researchers could not determine whether active treatment, including non-drug therapies such as mindfulness and meditation, could curb the risk of developing the disease.

The researchers trawled studies looking at the association between mid-life anxiety, in isolation or combined with depression, and the development of dementia. Only four out of more than 3,500 studies met these criteria, but they involved a total of nearly 30,000 people.


Dementia is a term used to describe a number of conditions that cause damage to brain cells. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and well-known cause of dementia and occurs when a build-up of protein on the brain forms plaques and tangles that stop the brain from working as it should. Vascular dementia is another common form of dementia and occurs when the blood supply to the brain is damaged.

The study, which was published by the BMJ Open online medical journal on Monday night, follows recent evidence which revealed a link between anxiety and mild cognitive impairment, and is also connected to the known association between depression and dementia.

More vulnerable

Researchers note that abnormal levels of stress can speed up brain cell ageing and degenerative changes in the central nervous system and thus make people more vulnerable to developing dementia later in life.

The study recommends that GPs consider anxiety as well as depression as an indicator of risk for dementia

“Anxiety symptoms are commonly experienced in the years preceding a dementia diagnosis and have been associated with cognitive impairment,” write researchers from the University of Southampton and University College London. Whether reducing anxiety in middle age would result in a reduced risk of dementia “remains an open question”, they write.

The study recommends that GPs consider anxiety as well as depression as an indicator of risk for dementia and that “close monitoring of subtle cognitive decline in older adults with a history of anxiety, depression and cerebrovascular disease (conditions that affect blood supply to the brain) would be encouraged”.

Research into the benefits of treating anxiety without the use of drugs should also be investigated, notes the study. “Non-pharmacological therapies, including talking therapies and mindfulness-based interventions and meditation practices, that are known to reduce anxiety in midlife, could have a risk-reducing effect, although this is yet to be thoroughly researched.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast