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Stress in midlife may increase risk of dementia, study suggests | Gustafson

People who undergo traumatic experiences or endure stressful situations during their midlife years may be more likely to suffer from cognitive decline such as Alzheimer's disease and memory loss as they age compared to their counterparts who manage to sail through life more smoothly, according to a study from Sweden that followed participants over decades, keeping track of their mental health.

Stressful experiences

The study only included women, but the researchers say there is no reason to assume their observations wouldn't be applicable to men as well, although, as other studies have shown, the sexes respond to stress differently in a number of ways.

What is remarkable about the findings of this study is that stress-producing events, even if they had taken place long in the past, continued to have a negative impact on people's mental well-being. Whether they could pinpoint the source to certain incidents like a divorce or the loss of loved ones, or whether they were exposed to high stress levels for extended periods of time, a.k.a. chronic stress, the potential for lasting health damages increased significantly as they grew older.

There also seems to be an accumulative effect: For each additional stressor the participating women reported at the beginning of the study, their risk of later developing Alzheimers's disease was raised by up to 20 percent.

The researchers do not claim having found a cause and effect connection between stress and age-related mental decline, though.

"Stress and stressors are just one of several risk factors. Not everyone who had stress or stressors developed dementia," said Dr. Lena Johansson of the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at Gothenburg University in Mölndal, Sweden, one of the authors of the study report.

The consequences

However, what the study does show, she said, is that common stressors most of us encounter every day can have severe long-lasting physiological and psychological consequences.

One possible explanation for this is that stress hormones like cortisol may cause harmful alterations in the brain. They can also affect blood pressure and blood sugar control. It is well known that high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, which is also suspected to play a role in mental decline. Even if all the connections are not yet fully understood, a larger picture seems to emerge that allows for a better identification of all the components.

For now, however, our best options are to take as many preventive measures as we can, such as eating healthy and exercising plenty. Getting enough sleep and managing stress are equally as important.

While there is no real protection against Alzheimer's and memory loss available today, and perhaps never will be, we all can take steps to remain mentally active and alert. Lifelong learning and problem solving are most beneficial in this regard. Maintaining an active social life is also important.

As far as stress is concerned, most of us can never escape that for good. Modern life is just that way. That means we must find solutions to deal with the inevitable and counterbalance the impact of stress as best as we can. There is no shortage on advice on how to go about this, including on this blog. What matters in the end is how successful we are in controlling our responses to the obstacles that are thrown in our way, not just for the moment but for the rest of our lives.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook, Google+ and on Pinterest.

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