Feeling stressed may increase the likelihood that you’ll develop memory problems and could increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a new study reports. The good news is that taking steps to manage and reduce stress, the authors say, might be a way to help maintain brain health and ward off memory problems with age.
The study, from researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, found that high levels of stress in older people was linked to an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment, a serious form of memory loss that often precedes Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that people who experienced high and persistent levels of stress were twice as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who felt less stressed.
“Our study provides strong evidence that perceived stress increases the likelihood that an older person will develop mild cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Richard Lipton, the study’s senior author and a neurology professor at Einstein and Montefiore Health System. “Fortunately, perceived stress is a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, making it a potential target for treatment.”
“Perceived stress reflects the daily hassles we all experience, as well as the way we appraise and cope with these events,” said the study’s first author, Mindy Katz. “Perceived stress can be altered by mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive-behavioral therapies and stress-reducing drugs. These interventions may postpone or even prevent an individual’s cognitive decline.”
For the study, published in the journal Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders, researchers collected data from 507 men and women who were part of the Einstein Aging Study, an ongoing study of adults 70 and older living in the Bronx, New York. Participants in the study were given regular mental and cognitive tests and filled out extensive questionnaires about their daily habits and activities, including how stressed they felt. All were free of serious memory problems at the start of the study.
Over the next three to four years, 71 of the participants were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. The higher a person’s stress level, the greater the likelihood that they were given a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment.
The researchers controlled for factors like depression, which can lead to fuzzy thinking and poor memory, and still the correlation between stress and memory problems held.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence that stress can be bad for the brain. A 2013 study from Sweden, for example, found that women who experience a lot of stress in middle age are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia late in life. Other research has shown that stress can hasten the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
High levels of stress and the stress hormone cortisol have been shown to damage brain cells and promote inflammation, which has been increasingly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Stress has also been linked to high blood pressure, which can also be bad for the brain. Fortunately, teaching people techniques like meditation to reduce stress can reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Many factors contribute to Alzheimer’s, including age and genetics. Long-term stress may be one more factor that may play a role in the onset of dementia.
Source: Mindy J. Katz, M.P.H., Carol Derby, Ph.D., Cuiling Wang, Ph.D., et al: “Influence of perceived stress on incident amnestic mild cognitive impairment: Results from the Einstein Aging Study.” Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders December, 2015.