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Chronic Stress: A Risk Factor For Alzheimer’s?

August 1, 2011

Chronic psychological stress throughout a lifespan might increase an individual’s risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life, according to research from the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services at
Utah State University. The research, led by Maria Norton, PhD, built off the recently completed 15-year Cache County Memory Study (CCMS) and used that data to focus on the role psychological stress has on dementia. The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that chronic stress can expose an individual to long-term levels of stress-related hormones, which results in chronically high levels of glucocorticoids, a natural chemical, shown in both animal and human studies to increase the rate of neuronal cell death with long-term exposure. “Using this objective data, such as death records, medical information, and the cognitive evaluations from the CCMS, we were able to see that people who experienced particularly stressful life events, such as a parent’s death during one’s childhood, death of a child or spouse, or living with a spouse who is afflicted with dementia is associated with significantly higher rates of dementia later in life,” Dr. Norton said. Norton also found that there were some factors that were associated with lower rates of depression and stress, such as individuals who had high levels of religious involvement, thus indicating that the ability to cope with psychological adversity might reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

“There are certainly some individuals who seem to weather stress and trials better than others, and as such they don’t tend to develop depression or face the long-term chronic exposure to the stress-related hormones that are linked to dementia,” added Dr. Norton. “This indicates that there may be preventative measures that can be taken to prevent or delay dementia. This study has helped us determine how to identify the more vulnerable subgroups of people who might benefit from stress management or other preventive interventions.”

Dr. Norton is an associate professor at Utah State University’s Department of Family, Consumer and Human Development. The Emma Eccles Jones College of Education is currently ranked fifth in the nation in terms of external funding for research. The “Lifespan Stressors and Alzheimer’s Disease” study was funded by the National Institute on Aging. Findings from this study have been published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the Journals of Gerontology, and Age and Aging.