Mounting Evidence Dementia Triggered by Acute Stress

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A STUDY RECENTLY PRESENTED at the World Congress of Neurology in Vienna suggests acute stress or consuming grief is related to the clinical onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

An Argentine research team headed by Dr. Edgardo Reich examined 118 randomly selected Alzheimer’s patients, average age 73. An average of 2.4 years had passed between their diagnosis and the onset of symptoms. The Alzheimer’s patients were compared to a control group of 81 healthy individuals whose age, gender distribution and educational level corresponded to the Alzheimer’s group.

“Nearly three out of four Alzheimer’s patients (72%) had to cope with severe emotional stress — three times as many as the control group in which only 26% experienced stress, grief and sorrow during the preceding 2.1 years before the onset of symptoms,” said Dr. Reich.

Most of the stress encountered by the Alzheimer’s group involved:

  • Bereavement (death of a spouse, partner, or child)
  • Violent experiences including assault and robbery
  • Car accidents
  • Financial problems, including “pension shock”
  • Diagnosis of a family member’s severe illness

Dr. Reich rules out stress as “monocausal in dementia,” but says, “stress can trigger a degenerative process in the brain and precipitate dysfunction in the neuroendocrine and immune system. It is probably a trigger for the initial symptoms of dementia.”

The concept that lifetime stressors could trigger the development of the disease, or at least facilitate the leap from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to full-blown dementia, has gained momentum in recent years, and researchers are starting to devote more resources to exploring the relationship more fully.

Another study, conducted a couple years ago, reported that women who had been through significant stressors in mid-life had a significantly (65%) greater risk of developing dementia later on. The theory is that stressful events can trigger a cascade of reactions involving the stress hormones (glucocorticoids) and eventually leading to atrophy in the brain’s hippocampus – the region that is the seat of memory, and known to be most affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

The most famous culprit in Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid-beta plaques, have been shown to accumulate following increased brain cell activity. Specifically, there’s evidence that people who have more activity in their default mode networks (which is linked to depression, mind-wandering, and general unhappy thoughts, among others) may have increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease precisely because of this connection. This suggests, somewhat alarmingly, that even our thoughts and moods may affect our risk for dementia.

If you’re like me, just thinking about stress is stressful. But there is good news here, and that is stress is management and can be minimized. For instance, if you or someone you know has just lost a loved one or close friend, under the Medicare Hospice Benefit, hospices provide bereavement support for at least a year to families of patients they have served. They also provide bereavement services to partners and close friends.

Often, hospices provide this support to people in their community even if the death did not occur with hospice care. For example, the bereaved person may have lost a family member in an accident or because of an act of violence.  The bereavement coordinator at the hospice can provide information about what support services are available or recommend local resources existing within the community.

Funeral homes may also have aftercare or bereavement support. Some funeral homes sponsor support groups. If they don’t, they also are often sources for information referral. Many faith communities also offer support groups for grieving people.

To reduce general, day-to-day stress, I strongly recommend meditation. UnfrazzledCare’s 5-Minute Meditation for Stressed Out Caregivers  is a good place to start if you don’t yet know how to meditate. And you don’t have to be a caregiver to benefit from this.

–David Bunnell

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