We live in a culture that treats busy like a badge of honor and stress as a fact of life. Stress might be commonplace, but it should not be the norm—and it turns out it could have lasting consequences. In fact, women who experience extreme stress during midlife just might have a higher risk of developing dementia later.
Before you quit your job and move to a cave, think about your stress level. A little stress is normal—sometimes even good. In fact, a little bit of healthy stress can keep you alert and engaged in life. When stress becomes chronic, however, it can have drastic effects on your health and lead to a variety of symptoms, including migraines, digestive issues, and even heart problems.
Extreme stress is in a whole different league. We experience extreme stress when we navigate difficult life events such as divorce, illness, death, job loss, or abuse. Face it: life happens, and we are all going to experience challenges along the way. But researchers from Sweden have found that those challenges can result in emotional trauma that may lead to cognitive damage—and, ultimately, Alzheimer’s disease.
To examine the relationship between stress and dementia, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study that included 800 women who were followed for 37 years. They identified psychosocial stressors—such as divorce, widowhood, or illness—at baseline and measured symptoms of distress at regular intervals throughout the study period. The results were astounding: women who experienced extreme stress in midlife were 21 percent more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and 15 percent more likely to develop dementia later in life. During the 37 years of follow-up, 153 women developed dementia, and 104 of those women had Alzheimer’s disease. The number of psychosocial stressors at midlife was associated with a higher level of distress then and a higher incidence of dementia later.
The researchers are quick to note that high levels of distress are not a guarantee of developing Alzheimer’s disease; it is simply an association. The reasons for the link are unclear but might have something to do with the effects of stress on body processes known to cause cognitive damage—for example, degraded hippocampal function or increased levels of inflammation-producing cytokines.
The bottom line: you will never be able to eliminate all stress from your life, but you can take care of your mental and emotional health to offset some of its damaging effects. When faced with any number of life challenges, it is important to make self-care a priority. Healthy activities such as meditation, journaling, exercise, deep breathing, and laughter may relieve some of your stress in the short term—and could even help prevent more-serious long-term consequences.
Johansson L, Guo X, Hällström T, et al. Common psychosocial stressors in middle-aged women related to longstanding distress and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease: A 38-year longitudinal population study. BMJ Open. 2013;3:e003142. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-003142.