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Worry, unlike anxiety, improves memory skills in elderly, Stanford study finds

Worrying actually helps alleviate the negative effects on memory and cognitive processing caused by depression and anxiety in older adults, according to a new study published recently in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

"This runs counter to the commonly held idea that worrying exacerbates cognitive difficulties and is solely 'bad,'" the study said.

The results of the study surprised researchers who now surmise that worry, particularly obsessive worrying, could be considered as a separate emotional trait from anxiety and depression when determining best treatment options for those with mental health disorders.

"These results flew in the face of what we thought was going to happen," said Sherry Beaudreau, PhD, lead author of the study conducted by Stanford and VA Palo Alto Health Care investigators.

Researchers studied 119 people older than 65 who underwent a series of cognitive tests in the lab. Those with lower levels of worry and higher levels of anxiety and depression got worse scores in memory and other cognitive functions, said Stanford researcher Ruth O’Hara, PhD, senior author of the study.

"We’re not suggesting there is no cost to worry," O'Hara said. "The day-to-day complaints from patients who worry too much, we know their suffering is real."

Rather, the message is that better understanding the effects of various emotional traits, such as obsessive worrying and rumination, on cognitive functioning may help improve treatment choices, she said.

"Worry symptoms are notoriously difficult to treat," the study said. "These patients may in fact suffer a more difficult to treat type of anxiety or depression."

Exactly why worry seems to help improve memory and cognitive function remains unclear, researchers said.

"Perhaps the excessive worry actually makes people more focused," Beaudreau said. "Perhaps their attention is better on the test."

Certain personality traits of obsessive worriers could result in fewer careless errors and greater precision in test taking, the study said.

"This could be explained in part by a personality trait of high worriers such as perfectionism," the study said. "More specifically, a brand of perfectionism characterized by an intrinsic motivation for error-free performance."

In the future, further research of worry as a personality trait independent from other anxiety and depression traits, may help more accurately reveal underlying patterns of how the brain processes variations in mood regulation, the study said.

"By harnessing what is known about perseverative (repetitive) negative thought, we might reach greater understanding of the heterogeneity of anxiety and depressive disorders," the study said.

Previously: A look at how emotions and cognition interact during the aging process, Tick tock goes the clock — is aging the biggest illness of all? and Neighborhood’s “walkability” helps older adults maintain physical and cognitive health
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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