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Study: Chronic Stress Can Lead to Early Alzheimer’s

FILE - Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are seen during a therapy session.
FILE - Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are seen during a therapy session.

For many people, the holidays are a time of stress, whether it’s caused by the anxiety of making a big meal for friends and family or spending time with grumpy relatives. Most of the time, the stress has no long-lasting effect; but if it becomes frequent and common over time, researchers say it could increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It could be prompted by the death of a spouse or loss of a job; but, psychiatrist Richard Lipton says it could also be something much less traumatic, like getting a traffic ticket.

“One person gets a speeding ticket and they think, 'This is horrible. My insurance premiums are going to go up and I’m going to get a $100 dollar fine," said Lipton. "This is a disaster for me.' And another person thinks, 'Hmmm. I shouldn’t have been speeding. I ’m going to be more careful in the future.'"

While a great loss can be devastating and the effects long-lasting, it’s the person who perceives common situations as stressful - like the first driver Lipton described - who could be putting his or her psychological health at risk.

Lipton, who is with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, explains that 'stressing out' over the small hassles of everyday life can lead to mild cognitive impairment, which is a risk factor for a far more serious disorder.

“People who have mild amnestic cognitive impairment go on to develop diagnosable Alzheimer’s dementia at the rate of about 10 to 15 percent per year. So, amnestic cognitive impairment is essentially most often an early form of Alzheimer’s disease before dementia develops," he said.

In a study reported in the journal Alzheimer’s Disease and Associated Disorders, Lipton and colleagues administered a stress assessment test to just over 500 individuals ages 70 and older. The test rated their level of perceived stress.

None of the participants had signs of mild cognitive impairment or dementia at the start of the study, called the Einstein Aging Study. They were followed for an average of 3.5 years with a battery of neuropsychological tests and given physical exams.

During the study, 71 participants were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Those with the highest stress levels were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop the pre-Alzheimer’s condition. Most were women with less education and higher levels of depression.

Lipton says chronic stress has a number of negative effects on the body.

“When stressful events happen and people perceive them to be stressful, there’s a whole series of physiologic changes that take place. Blood pressure goes up, pulse goes up, the stress hormone cortisol is secreted and, over time, chronic stress can produce wear and tear on the body and wear and tear on the brain and lead to long-term health consequences," he said.

Lipton says that lowering levels of perceived stress – by engaging in activities such as yoga and meditation, for example - could help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.