Chronic stress can cause dementia later in life, a study published by the BMJ Open suggests. The long-term research observed over 800 Swedish women over a span of 38 years. Participants reported occurrences of highly stressful life events such as divorce, long-term unemployment, or a chronically ill family member. Neuropsychiatric tests and exams were then administered intermittently throughout 1968, 1974, 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2005. Symptoms of anxiety, such as trouble sleeping and irritability, were also documented during each follow-up visit.

Results of the study found a high cost of high-level stress. One in four of those who participated in the study experienced at least one stressful life event. One in five of the women later developed dementia. The number of stresses reported was closely associated with a 15% increased risk of developing dementia and a 21% risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Stress Tied to Brain Degeneration

Why might stress build a bridge to degenerative conditions? Researchers from the study point to the effects of stress on the brain as an explanation. "Stress effects immunological, vascular, and neurological systems," explains Dr. Lena Johansson, author of the study and affilate of Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University. Stress-related hormones have been shown to change the physical structure of the brain, affecting learning, mood, and significantly, memory. Effects also include damage to dendrites which leads to further anxiety, stimulating a snowball effect on the regression of brain structures.

Researchers also acknowledge that high-levels of stress can be maintained even after a distressful event has passed. This is common in victims of highly traumatic events, such as surviving a war, natural disasters, or violent assaults; they may carry a heightened risk of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.

Can It Be Prevented?

Authors of this study believe that additional research is needed to get a larger understanding of how long-term stress can lead to later problems of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Johansson reports plans to do a similar study on men. Fortunately, ways of decreasing your chances of developing these diseases are largely understood, although prevention is not possible. A study conducted by experts at the University of California, San Francisco describes behavioral lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia. These include:

  • Treating and preventing chronic conditions (such as depression and diabetes)
  • Pursuing higher education
  • Remaining physically active
  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure

Date of original publication: .

Updated on November 10, 2015.

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