The relationship between stress and dementia is actually a fairly new research topic and one that is important the longer people live and the more complex, demanding, and chaotic our lives are becoming. Most of us find it difficult to avoid the chaos and conflicting demands on our time and resources. Given the circumstances, it is only natural to ask if stress can cause dementia. The short answer is: Yes! Early studies are at least linking stress with an increased risk of dementia. Here are some of the recent findings.
1. A longitudinal study of 2 ½ years, involving 62 participants, with an average age of 78 years, who were diagnosed as either mild cognitive impairment or cognitively normal, were followed for cortisol levels, ratings of the amount of stress of lifetime events, and changes in independent psychiatric diagnoses. The authors concluded that prolonged highly stressful experiences can accelerate cognitive decline in people with aging, already susceptible brains. However, cortisol measures were not associated with decline or change in diagnosis. (Peavy, Jacobson, et al. 2012.)
2. In another study with mice, it was found that high levels of stress hormones are linked to higher levels of tau and amyloid precursor protein, which is linked to Alzheimer’s.
3. The importance of highly stressful experiences and prolonged highly stressful experiences seem to be a repeating finding. One thing is well known: highly stressful experiences can age the brain more quickly than is typical in the passage of the same amount of time. Defining a “highly stressful experience” are things such as being fired after age 50 when it is much harder to find another job. Another experience that rates as highly stressful would be a financial crisis. One study of over a thousand participants found that each stressful experience aged the brain by 4 years. One implication from this finding is that there is most likely a cumulative effect of stress and each stressful event could increase the risk of dementia. The study’s authors argued that this cumulative hypothesis may help explain why African-Americans, who tend to face higher rates of stress, have higher rates of dementia.
The risk of chronic stress increasing one’s risk of dementia becomes a greater concern for people for whom dementia runs in their family. It is important for all of us to help pass the message that stress is something you can have significant control over. If people will wake up to the importance of reducing stress on a regular basis and become more aware of their states of mind, they should be able to reduce the risk of dementia by regularly reducing their stress.