When looking into the causes of dementia, we wondered many times whether there is a connection between stress and dementia risk.
News usually reports that there is a link between the two.
Below we discuss what stress is, WHY stress is linked to dementia, the EFFECTS of stress on the brain, STUDIES on the link between dementia and stress, and some of the ways to REDUCE stress.
Reasons Stress is Linked to Dementia
There are several logical reasons why there is a connection between stress and dementia.
For one, stress is known to affect a person’s IMMUNE SYSTEM which plays a major role in dementia development.
When a person is going through stress, the body releases a hormone known as cortisol.
This has been linked to issues with memory.
Effects of Stress on the Brain
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public health presented a study explaining how stressful life events can age the brain about 1.5 years.
They also clarified that some stressful experiences may lead to the development of different kinds of dementia later on in life. This was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London.
Researchers assessed data from 1,320 participants who took part in cognitive tests and shared details about their stressful life events. The professionals discovered that each stressful event was equal to one and a half years of brain aging.
The statistics were different for African-Americans because a single stressful event was equal to four years of brain aging.
Although the link between dementia and stress needs more investigation, professionals believe that stress can lead to inflammation in the brain making the organ more susceptible to HEALTH ISSUES like dementia.
Stress can also cause depression which is another risk factor for dementia.
Examples of stressful experiences that are linked to damaging the brain include but are not limited to:
- Being suspended or expelled from school
- Getting fired from a job
- A cheating partner
- Financial problems
- Death of a loved one
- Dropping out of school
- Legal difficulties
- Being jobless
Research on the Link Between Stress and Dementia
While there have been numerous studies looking into the relationship between dementia and stress, there is no general agreement on what the exact link is.
One of the main reasons for this is that it is challenging for researchers to conclusively investigate stress.
This is because different people have different reactions to stressful situations.
It is also hard to quantify how stressed an individual is.
Other factors that are hard to separate may also come into play.
For instance, the role of lack of sleep, depression, and anxiety all of which have been associated with an INCREASED risk of dementia.
The complications explain why it may be challenging to carry out extensive research on the role that stress has in the risk of dementia.
Despite this, professionals still work hard to try and explain the connection between increased dementia risk and stress.
Below are some of the studies that have been conducted on the relationship between stress and dementia.
New research reported that PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a potential risk factor for dementia development.
PTSD is normally caused by childhood trauma, being a victim of abuse or violence, and traumatic experiences like war.
The study was the first to attempt to quantify the risk of developing dementia associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The team thoroughly searched around 8,000 papers to identify existing studies across the globe. Focusing on different populations examining the relationship between future dementia risk and PTSD.
Data collected from different studies indicated that PTDS was associated with increased dementia risk.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
The researchers concluded that post-traumatic stress disorder was a strong but modifiable risk factor for the progressive illness.
To identify if there is a potential link between stress and dementia, researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK in 2021 started a 3-year study. Investigating the effects of chronic stress on individuals with MCI (mild cognitive impairment) and a control group of 70 people over 50 years without any memory problems.
All the participants were assessed for STRESS LEVELS as well as any progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.
After years of following up, taking into consideration numerous factors, the study suggested that objective psychological stress is one of the risk factors for cognitive decline.
Stress, women and dementia
Another study also reported that midlife stress may increase the risk of developing dementia. Researchers came to this conclusion after conducting a study of 800 women living in Sweden.
The professionals followed the ladies for almost 4 decades.
Even though the study did not include men, the results suggested that stress may have long-term detrimental effects on everyone.
The researchers examined the long-term cognitive and medical health of the ladies.
When the study began the ladies were asked whether they had experienced MAJOR STRESSES like illness of a family member, divorce, or death of a child or spouse, and other sources of stress.
About 25% of the ladies had experienced a major life stressful experience. 23% had gone through two stressful events, 20% had experienced at least 3, while 16% had gone through 4 or more stressful experiences.
Around 1 in 5 women developed dementia during the follow-up period.
The ladies that reported the most stressful experiences in middle age were at 21% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in old age.
15% also recorded a higher risk of developing other dementia types.
The authors acknowledged that more studies need to be done to confirm the results.
Tips for Reducing Stress
Seeing that there may be a connection between stress and dementia, it may be helpful to try and avoid or reduce stress as it may reduce the risk of developing dementia.
Some of the steps that people can take to help reduce stressful events include:
- Identifying sources of stress and avoiding them
- Addressing stress triggers and accepting help with the situations. People should aim to look for something positive even in the most difficult situations
- Knowing limits and establishing boundaries
- Changing stressful environments to an alternative that is quiet and relaxing
- Identify relaxing techniques to adapt when feeling overwhelmed or stressed. This can be anything from meditation, yoga, exercising, journaling, listening to music, gardening, or watching TV, etc.
- Talking to someone you trust about current feelings. It can be a friend, relative, or professional counselor
- Take breaks as needed to help conserve energy
- Letting things that are out of control go
- Social engagement like joining a club (See our group activity recommendations)
- Getting a pet
- Sleep well
- Eat healthy food
- Take part in brain-stimulating activities like playing games
Even though evidence points to a strong relationship between stress and dementia risk, more research needs to be done on this topic.
More conclusive results can help professionals come up with effective ways of preventing, managing, or treating dementia.
Bonus: What is Stress?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes stress as how the body and brain respond to any demand.
This can be any kind of challenges such as performance at school/work, traumatic event, or a significant life change. Symptoms of stress include sweating, pounding heart, and tense muscles amongst others.
These warning signs are supposed to disappear as soon as the danger passes, but some individuals experience stressed feelings for longer periods.
This can result in chronic or prolonged stress that can be severe and have serious effects on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional being.