Life can be stressful. Busy jobs, financial woes, family obligations, the ups and downs of married life, and so much more mean the reality is that few of us make it to old age without facing a heaping pile of stress.
Research increasingly suggests that stress plays a role in dementia. So what does this mean in our increasingly frazzled society? Here’s what you need to know—and how to reduce your risk.
Dementia, Stress, and Mental Health: Understanding the Connection
Particularly if dementia runs in your family, you may feel fearful about what your future holds. While the news that stress is linked to dementia can cause you to stress about your stress, don’t panic just yet. Stress is something you have significant control over. Mounting evidence that it’s linked to dementia suggests that people might actually be able to lower their dementia risk by lowering their stress.
Studies on the role of stress in dementia are still relatively new. More research will have to test the apparent correlation between dementia and stress. Researchers also don’t yet understand how stress might cause dementia. Here’s what the research tells us so far:
- In people with mild cognitive impairment, chronic stress can increase the risk of dementia, according to a study of 62 seniors with an average age of 78.
- In mice, high levels of stress hormones are linked to higher levels of tau and amyloid precursor protein, both of which are linked to Alzheimer’s.
- Highly stressful experiences age the brain more quickly. In a study of 1,320 people, each stressful experience—such as being fired or facing a financial crisis—aged the brain by four years. This suggests a cumulative effect for stress, with each stressful event increasing the risk of dementia. The study’s authors argue that this might help explain why groups such as African-Americans, who tend to face higher rates of stress, also have higher rates of dementia.
- Another study, which followed 800 women for 38 years, found that high stress levels in middle age correlate with a greater risk of dementia.
- An analysis that reviewed other studies on stress and dementia also uncovered a link. Researchers found that chronic stress is a significant risk factor for dementia. Because this study looked at several previous studies, its findings are particularly convincing.
- A study of 1,700 seniors with an average age of 77 found a link between depression—which can both cause and be caused by stress—and dementia. Seniors who had no signs of dementia at the beginning of the study were more likely to develop dementia if they had depression. Overall, depression accounted for about 4.4 percent of the differences in mental decline that could not be attributed to dementia-related damage found in the brain. Another study found that depression that becomes steadily worse over time increases the risk of dementia in people over the age of 55.
Sleepless Nights: Another Risk Factor for Dementia
As anyone who’s ever tossed and turned all night knows, stress can cause insomnia. Insomnia can also cause stress—particularly when you wake up feeling like a zombie morning after morning. Seniors are likelier to experience insomnia than other groups. One study found that 36 percent of women over the age of 65 take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep.
Sleepless nights are linked to dementia in several ways. One recent study, which looked primarily at male veterans, found that sleep problems increase the risk of dementia by 30 percent. For insomniacs with a history of trauma, there’s more bad news: Among people with post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeplessness increases the risk of dementia by 80 percent.
Insomnia isn’t just a risk factor for dementia. It could also be an early warning sign. Age-related sleep changes can occur even in people who don’t have dementia. Many seniors find they get up earlier or need slightly less sleep than they once did. More pronounced sleep disturbances, however, can spell trouble. One study found that difficult sleeping can be an early sign of dementia-related brain changes, especially if sleeplessness is accompanied by daytime fatigue.
It’s possible that dementia simply changes the way the brain manages sleep. Other research has found that excessive sleep can also warn of dementia. So seniors struggling with sleep issues should take their symptoms seriously. After all, everyone needs rest.
Keeping Dementia Risk in Perspective
Although a number of studies have found a link between stress and dementia, it’s still not clear how stress might cause dementia—or even if stress does cause dementia. A correlation between stress and dementia doesn’t mean every stressed person will develop dementia.
Healthy coping tools can help you manage stress, potentially reducing your risk of dementia. Meditation, healthy sleep, and even therapy can make unmanageable stress feel more manageable. If you have difficulty sleeping, talk to a doctor or psychotherapist about what you can do to get some shuteye.
Studies have also shown that exercise can help with stress and depression. That’s good news, because exercise also reduces the risk of dementia. Some research has even found that exercise can cancel out the effects of a gene for Alzheimer’s.
People concerned about their stress level should know that everyone experiences stress. Most research suggests that stress itself isn’t the problem. The issue, instead, is chronic stress. That’s a powerful incentive to get your stress under control, no matter how old you are.
Even if you struggle to manage stress, stress is just one among many risk factors for dementia. One landmark study found that nine risk factors—most of them fixable—are the best predictors of dementia. Keep these in check and watch your risk decline. Those risk factors are:
- Low educational attainment
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Hearing loss in midlife
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Isolation and loneliness
Now is a better time than ever to begin tackling the dementia risk factors you can change—and to stop worrying about those you cannot control.