A large new study found that stress-related disorders are tied to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The findings lend further proof to what doctors have long suspected: stress is bad for the brain. They also underscore the potential importance of stress relief in helping to mitigate the onset of Alzheimer’s, a consideration that may be particularly compelling as all of us deal with the ongoing fallout from the coronavirus crisis.
Earlier studies have suggested that stress is bad for brain health. Combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, have an increased of developing dementia. But this study was conducted among a large swath of men and women in the general population who were living in Sweden.
For the study, researchers looked at 61,748 men and women who had been given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder or other stress-related conditions between 1987 and 2008. They followed them over many years, comparing them with nearly 600,000 of their peers who had not been given a stress-related diagnosis. The researchers also compared 44,839 of those with a stress-related condition to 78,482 of their brothers and sisters who did not have a stress disorder.
The researchers found that those with a stress disorder were at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease years later. They did not find a link between stress and other degenerative brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The findings highlight how life stress may affect the brain long term. Chronic stress can cause body-wide inflammation, and increasingly scientists think inflammation may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic conditions. Studies have shown that chronic stress can lower the immune system, making us more vulnerable to colds and other infectious diseases.
How we cope with stress can also affect our lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking, not sleeping well or consuming an unhealthy diet, which may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Stress reduction is therefore critical for general health, including brain health. There are many steps you can take to help reduce stress levels, studies show. Among them are the following.
- Many studies have shown that exercise can be an effective way to improve mood and ease stress. And it doesn’t take much. Even small amounts of exercise — walking up steps, cleaning the house, taking a walk, lifting light hand weights — can help you to manage stress. Find an activity that fits your schedule and that you enjoy, and establish a regular routine.
- Head outdoors. Combining exercise with the outdoors can provide a double boost. Studies have shown that people who did activities outdoors generally enjoy them more and do them for longer. Those who exercised outdoors had lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, than those who did the same activities indoors. One small study found that those who exercised around the color green — think trees and grass — had better moods than those who exercised in predominantly red or gray environs.
- Try meditation or related techniques. Focusing on the breath, for example, for a set amount of time each day has been shown to lower stress and boost your immune system. Meditation has been shown to activate parts of the brain that help you manage stress and promote focus and calm. After a four-month meditation program, participants showed lower levels of proteins tied to chronic inflammation. Keeping a journal or working on an art project is another way to promote calm and mental focus.
- Avoid stress eating. Stress can prompt you to eat high-fat and unhealthy foods that have been tied to an increased risk of dementia. Instead, slow down and focus on what you are eating, taking time to savor the aromas, to feel the texture and taste of each bite of food in your mouth. Mindful mealtimes can be a form of meditation, helping to promote calm. Try to work more fruits, vegetables, fish, even a daily glass of red wine into your diet. A Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Connect with others. Reach out to friends, neighbors, family and loved ones. Social connectedness can combat loneliness and is one of the most important things you can do to promote brain health. One researcher has calculated that feeling lonely and isolated took a toll similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Many studies show that giving support to others is a powerful way to ease stress and boost resilience. Giving to others can be even more potent than receiving support yourself.
- Don’t forget the pets. Spending time with a pet can be an effective stress fighter. Dog owners get far more exercise than people who don’t own pets. Therapy dogs, cats, rabbits even llamas are increasingly showing up in nursing homes, VA hospitals and long-term care facilities to help ease stress. After just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, studies show, levels of stress hormones drop considerably.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Huan Song, MD, PHD; Johanna Sieurin, MSc; Karin Wirdefeldt, MD; et al: “Association of Stress-Related Disorders With Subsequent Neurodegenerative Diseases.” JAMA Neurology, March 9, 2020