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Vol. 27, No. 3, 2006
Issue release date: October 2006
Neuroepidemiology 2006;27:143–153

Chronic Psychological Distress and Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

Wilson R.S. · Arnold S.E. · Schneider J.A. · Kelly J.F. · Tang Y. · Bennett D.A.
aRush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, bRush Institute for Healthy Aging, and Departments of cNeurological Sciences, dBehavioral Sciences, and eInternal Medicine, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Ill., fCenter for Neurobiology and Behavior, and gDepartment of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa., USA

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Clinical and pathological data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project were used to test the hypothesis that distress proneness is associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). More than 600 older persons without dementia completed a 6-item measure of neuroticism, a stable indicator of proneness to psychological distress. At annual intervals thereafter, they underwent uniform evaluations that included clinical classification of AD and administration of 18 cognitive tests. Those who died underwent brain autopsy from which composite measures of AD pathology were derived. During a mean of about 3 years of follow-up, 55 people were clinically diagnosed with AD. In analyses that controlled for age, sex, and education, persons with a high level of distress proneness (score = 24, 90th percentile) were 2.7 times more likely to develop AD than those not prone to distress (score = 6, 10th percentile). Adjustment for depressive symptomatology or frequency of cognitive, social, and physical activity did not substantially change this effect. Distress proneness was also associated with more rapid cognitive decline. Among 45 participants who died and underwent brain autopsy, distress proneness was unrelated to diverse measures of AD pathology and was inversely related to cognition after controlling for AD pathology. The results support the hypothesis that distress proneness is associated with increased risk of dementia and suggest that neurobiologic mechanisms other than AD pathology may underlie the association.

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