December 8, 2003
Men and women who become easily stressed, tense and worried are more likely to develop Alzheimer's than those who tend to remain calm, a new study suggests. In the study, people who most often experienced depression, anxiety, or other negative emotions were twice as likely to develop the mind-ravaging illness than those who were least likely to suffer from these symptoms.
The results were part of a large and ongoing study of Catholic nuns, priests, and brothers who are being assessed for signs of Alzheimer's. In this study, nearly 800 participants, average age 75, were questioned about such matters as how often they worry, feel tense or jittery, or get angry about how others treat them. Doctors then evaluated them annually to look for any signs of memory loss. They were also assessed for symptoms of depression, as well as how often they engaged in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading a book.
"People differ in their tendency to experience psychological distress, and this is a stable personality trait throughout adulthood," says study author Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Ill. "Since chronic stress has been associated with changes in the hippocampal area of the brain and problems with learning and memory, we wanted to test the theory that psychological distress may affect the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease."
After about five years, 140 of the participants showed signs of Alzheimer's. Those who were most prone to stress were most likely to suffer from memory lapses, such as being unable to recall lists of words or the events of a story, problems typical of the disease. Psychological distress, independent of depression or keeping the mind intellectually busy, seemed to correlate with the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.
"This result suggests that stress proneness is a co-factor leading to dementia in Alzheimer's disease, but these results need to be confirmed," says John C.S. Breitner, M.D., M.P.H, of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and the University of Washington in Seattle, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.
The investigators also wish to pursue whether providing antidepressants or other medicines that blunt the effects of stress may help to preserve the brain, but much more study is needed.
The study appeared in the December 9, 2003 issue of the journal Neurology, a scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology. It was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging.
By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer's Information Site. Reviewed by Samuel E. Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board, Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation.