Want to Avoid Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia? Try Reducing Stress.
Stress – especially prolonged or chronic stress – may increase an individual’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related conditions.
Stress and Dementia Link: The Evidence
Scientists have long suspected a link between stress and age-related cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
For one thing, cortisol – a key hormone released whenever someone’s under stress – is associated with memory problems. Stress also impacts the immune system, which is known to play a role in dementia. And stress contributes to anxiety and depression, which might also contribute to the development of dementia-related disorders.
In 2014, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University concluded that stress could be an important factor in dementia – although not the only one.
Two years later, a scientific review published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry found chronic stress and anxiety damaged areas of the brain involved in emotional responses, as well as thinking and memory. Eventually, accumulating damage could contribute to the development of dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease.
“Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia,” said lead author Linda Mah of the University of Toronto.
Stressful Life Events Could Begin Aging the Brain in Childhood
Most recently, a study published in the April 2018 issue of BMJ Open found that people with “clinically significant anxiety” were more likely to develop dementia later in life. The study authors theorized that an abnormal stress response might actually speed brain cell aging.
In 2017, research conducted at the University of Wisconsin linked 27 stressful life events to accelerated brain aging. Some of the events are common in childhood (for example, experiencing a parental divorce or being expelled from school), while others (a cheating spouse, divorce, or conflicts with in-laws) aren’t encountered until adulthood. Money problems – including bankruptcy, becoming unemployed, or losing a home – were also associated with a rapidly aging brain.
“The stressful events were throughout the lifespan – a variety of different things that you can imagine would be impactful and stressful,” the Alzheimer’s Association’s Dr. Maria Carrillo told the Daily Mail. “Dementia and brain health should be thought of as life-course issues, not just mid-life or late-life [problems]. We have to start thinking about brain health from birth, if not before.”
Stress Reduction for Dementia Prevention
It’s basically impossible to eliminate stressful events from our lives entirely. But because proven stress reduction and coping strategies can be quite effective at calming anxiety and heading off depression, deploying these techniques might help many people reduce their risk of age-related dementia.
- Regular Exercise: Aim for 150 minutes of cardio every week, and try to get in some strength training, as well as balance and coordination exercises. Some studies suggest 2-3 strength training sessions a week can cut Alzheimer’s risk in half for those over 65.
- Social Engagement: Socially engaged people also appear to have a lower risk for dementia-related conditions. Volunteering, becoming active in the local senior citizens center, participating in group exercise classes, and even just getting to know the neighbors are excellent ways to increase social engagement.
- Healthy Diet: Research has linked the Mediterranean Diet (plenty of vegetables, beans, whole grains, fish and olive oil) to a lower risk of age-related cognitive impairment. Omega-3 fats (found in cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, seaweed, and sardines) may also help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by reducing beta-amyloid plaques. Fish oil supplements are an effective substitute for non-seafood lovers.
- Mental Stimulation: Exercising the mind keeps the brain healthy! In fact, one groundbreaking study suggested older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training continued to enjoy its benefits a decade later. Activities to consider? Try learning a foreign language, practicing a musical instrument, or learning to sew or knit. Working on a crossword puzzle, playing board games or cards, even trying your hand at Scrabble or Sudoku are also great exercises for an aging brain.
- Get Quality Sleep: Regular sleep deprivation slows mental function and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related disorders. Establish a regular sleep schedule, waking up and heading to bed around the same time every day. Reserve your bed for sleep and sex, and keep TVs and computers out of the bedroom.
- Stress Management: Quiet the stress response with deep, abdominal breathing and set aside some time each day to learn or practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga. Don’t forget to make time for leisure activities you enjoy and always strive to keep your sense of humor!