Stressful life events like divorce or bereavement may do as much harm to our physical health as to our emotional wellbeing.
A study of close to 1,000 Swedish women found that those who had dealt with such major events were more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in later life. In fact, the study, published in the journal BMJ Open, found that the more stressful the life event, the higher the risk of dementia.
Researchers believe that stress hormones may play a major role in the increased risk, dangerously altering the brain in harmful ways.
Stress hormones are known to wreak havoc on our blood pressure and blood sugar levels. But scientists point out the harmful effects of life stress to our health and wellbeing can remain at high levels years after experiencing a traumatic event.
The four-decade-long study saw preliminary test and assessments conducted when the women were in their late 30s, mid 40s and or 50s back in 1968. The same examinations were then carried out at regular intervals over the following years.
One in four of the subjects said they had experienced a stressful life event, which included divorce, losing a spouse, having a child who suffered or died from a serious illness, having a family member who suffered from mental illness or substance abuse, unemployment or poor social support – at the start of the study. A smaller number had experienced at least two and one in five sighted at least three events.
Follow-up tests saw 153 of the study’s participants develop dementia. When looking at the data collected, scientists found that there was a link between stress and increased dementia risk.
“Our study shows that common psychosocial stressors may have severe and longstanding physiological and psychological consequences,” the study’s authors, led by neuropsychiatric epidemiologist Dr. Lena Johansson, said.
More work is needed to ascertain whether or not the stress-dementia link also occurs in men.
“Stress may cause a number of physiological reactions in the central nervous, endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems.”
Dr Johansson also said that future studies should look at the benefit of stress management and behavioural therapy to offsetting dementia.