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Can stress age the brain?

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
stressed working woman

17th July 2017 – Undergoing stressful events in your life could make your brain age more rapidly, according to early results from a study.

The research is one of a number of investigations presented to a London conference on Alzheimer's disease that suggests stress, divorce and a family death can all impact on brain health.

Ethnic minorities are frequently more at risk than white people, say researchers.

Stress, memory and thinking skills

Scientists from Wisconsin in the US looked at what happened to our brains as a result of stress.

They used information from 1,320 people, with an average age of 58, who had detailed stressful experiences during their lives and had taken part in tests of memory and thinking.

Events at home and at work

Stressful events were typically being given the sack at work, having a child die, growing up with an alcoholic or drug dependent parent or being sent into combat with the armed forces.

These types of stressful events were associated with a poorer performance in memory and thinking tests, the researchers found. Also, this was most apparent in black people.

Even highly educated Black Americans experienced over 60% more stressful events than non-hispanic whites during their lifetimes, they found.

When they tried to quantify the effect of stress, they found that each reported experience seemed to equate to around 4 extra years of brain ageing.

The findings, presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2017, should be treated with caution as they have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Turning lives upside down

Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, says in a statement. "Our brains are incredibly intricate organs that show enormous resilience to keep us ticking every day. Stressful life events can turn our lives upside down for a time and though most people can eventually return to an even keel, we can’t be sure how psychological stress could impact the workings of the brain over time."

In a statement, Dr Doug Brown, director of research and development for the Alzheimer’s Society, says: "We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it's no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life. However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia.

"Studying the role of stress is complex. It is hard to separate from other conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are also thought to contribute towards dementia risk. However, the findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events."

Dr Brown says more research is needed to establish how stress and stressful events can impact on our health.

Reviewed on July 17, 2017

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