Vidyya Medical News Service
Volume 6 Issue 19 Published - 14:00 UTC 08:00 EST 19-Jan-2004 Next Update - 14:00 UTC 08:00 EST 20-Jan-2004-Jan-2004
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Study: Distress-prone people more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease

People who tend to experience psychological distress are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who are less prone to experience distress, a new study indicates.

In the study, published in the Dec. 9, 2003, issue of Neurology, people who most often experience negative emotions such as depression and anxiety were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those who were least prone to experience negative emotions. The research is part of a larger study of older Catholic nuns, priests and brothers called the Religious Orders study.

"People differ in their tendency to experience psychological distress, and this is a stable personality trait throughout adulthood," says study author Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "Since chronic stress has been associated with changes in the hippocampal area of the brain and problems with learning and memory, we wanted to test the theory that psychological distress may affect the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease."

Wilson says the findings are important because evidence has shown that many of the adverse effects of stress on the brain can be blocked by drugs, including antidepressants. "But much more research is needed before we can determine whether the use of antidepressants could help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease," he says.

In the study, 797 people with an average age of 75 were evaluated when they started the study and then on a yearly basis. Participants were evaluated on their level of proneness to stress with a rating scale that has been proven reliable. Participants rate their level of agreement (strongly disagree, disagree, etc.) with statements such as "I am not a worrier," "I often feel tense and jittery," and "I often get angry at the way people treat me."

During an average of 4.9 years of follow-up, 140 people in the study developed Alzheimer's disease. Those high in proneness to stress--in the 90th percentile--were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those in the 10th percentile.

To investigate whether proneness to distress was an early sign of Alzheimer's disease rather than a risk factor for the disease, the researchers studied the brains of 141 study participants who died during the course of the study. Of those, 57 met the criteria for probable Alzheimer's disease. The researchers found that proneness to distress was not related to measures of Alzheimer's disease pathology, such as plaques and tangles in the brain.

"This result suggests that stress proneness is a co-factor leading to dementia in Alzheimer's disease, but these results need to be confirmed," said John C. S. Breitner, M.D., M.P.H., of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and the University of Washington in Seattle, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.

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