A stressful life has an array of unhealthy and uncomfortable side effects, and a study has found that for women, a stressful life can also lead to a 21 percent higher risk of Alzheimer’s and a 15 percent higher risk of dementia.
The study, which focused on 800 Swedish women’s experiences between 1968 and 2005, found that women who suffer from midlife stress have a much higher risk of developing dementia. Stressors assessed included divorce, bereavement, job loss and mental illness in the family. The higher number of stressors the women experienced, the higher the risk.
Research subjects starting undergoing tests in their late 30s and continued through their 50s. Twenty percent of the women developed dementia over the course of the study, and 104 of those cases were Alzheimer’s. Scientists looked at previous studies on dementia and noted how stress causes both structural and functional brain damage. They concluded that the stress hormones, which continue to affect the brain for years after the initial stress factor, may be the link to the increased risk.
It’s really no surprise that dealing with prolonged stress has lasting physiological effects on the brain. Long after a traumatic event has passed, the stress hormone is still there. Memories of the event trigger it, and the emotions that follow it never leave. Stress literally damages the body.
We all undergo stress from time to time. Jobs create stress, caring for a sick loved one creates stress and the daily life of raising a family creates stress. But some stressors, like divorce or a cancer diagnosis, seem to bring about more stress than others. These “extreme stress” situations can lead to mental breakdowns and burnout. When extreme stress is prolonged, the results can be deadly. Chronic stress actually leads to shrinkage in the hippocampus,which is the key memory area of the brain. It also hampers nerve cell growth, which in turn increases the risk of dementia.
While stress is inevitable and the causes of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are unknown, there are a few things people can do to reduce their chances of developing it.
Breathe: Stress alters breathing rates and impacts oxygen levels in the brain. Practice deep, abdominal breathing to quiet your stress response.
Schedule daily relaxation activities. It takes regular effort to keep stress under control. Make time every day to relax. Whether it’s a walk in the park, a soothing bath or playtime with a pet, take some time out to unwind.
Practice inner peace. A strong mind-body connection is associated with better brain health. Regular, prayer, reflection and religious practices protect against the damaging effects of stress.