Stress in Midlife May Be Especially Bad for Your Brain

April 17, 2024

Stressful events in midlife could raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in old age, according to a new report. The findings add to growing evidence that stress is bad for the brain.

The study looked at more than 1,200 men and women in Spain who ranged in age from 48 to 77. All had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, though none of them had serious memory or thinking problems.

Study participants filled out detailed questionnaires about stressful events in their lives, such as the death of a loved one, losing a job, or going through a serious medical illness. They also underwent MRI brain scans and lumbar punctures (spinal taps) to test for signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

The research team found that in men, having major stressful events in midlife was associated with increased levels of beta-amyloid in the brain. Buildup of the toxic protein, which clumps together in the brain to form plaques, is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. In women, stressful life events in midlife were tied to lower levels of gray matter in the brain. Decreased brain volume is another risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

“We know midlife is a period when Alzheimer’s disease pathologies start to build up,” said study author Eleni Palpatzis of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. “It is possible that these years represent a vulnerable period where experiencing psychological stress may have a long-lasting impact on brain health.”

Higher levels of stressful experiences in childhood were also associated with higher risk of developing body-wide inflammation, including increased inflammatory markers in the brain, later in life. Scientists believe that inflammation is tied to a range of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

The researchers found that people with psychiatric illnesses, such as depression or chronic anxiety, also had higher levels of beta-amyloid, brain shrinkage, and inflammation, as well as higher levels of tau tangles in the brain, which is another sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Depression is a recognized risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. The authors suggest that those with mental illness may have impaired coping strategies for dealing with stress that may make them more susceptible to the effects of stressful life events. 

“Our study reinforces the idea that stress could play a significant role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” said study author Eider Arenaza-Urquijo. “Our results suggest that the mechanisms through which life stressors affect brain health in men and women are different: amyloid protein accumulation in men, and brain atrophy,” or shrinkage, in women, she added. The findings were published in the Annals of Neurology.

The study provides further evidence that major and ongoing stress is bad for your cognitive health. The findings further underscore the potential importance of stress relief in helping to mitigate the onset of Alzheimer’s. 

One of the best ways to minimize the effects of stress is through regular exercise, experts say, which can help to tamp down stress levels and the body-wide inflammation it can cause. Whether it’s going for regular walks, gardening or playing pickleball, find an activity you enjoy and stick with it. 

Poor sleep can also contribute to stress and promote inflammation, so aim to establish a regular pattern of going to bed and waking up. Avoid coffee late in the day, and computer screens at bedtime, which can interrupt the brain’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

A growing number of gyms and community centers offer additional activities that can promote relaxation, including mindfulness meditation, yoga and tai chi. Enjoying group activities with others can also lessen stress and feelings of loneliness, and social interaction is a well-recognized buffer for lowering your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.  

Source: E. Palpatzis; M. Akinci; P Aguilar-Dominguez; et al: “Lifetime Stressful Events Associated with Alzheimer’s Pathologies, Neuroinflammation and Brain Structure in a Risk Enriched Cohort.” Annals of Neurology, March 11, 2024


Alzheimer's Articles