Stress in Middle Age Linked to High Alzheimer's Disease Risk in Women

A new study published in BMJ Open suggests middle-aged women who are under a lot of stress have a high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease later in life.

A new study published in BMJ Open suggests middle-aged women who are under a lot of stress have a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

The study analyzed data from 800 Swedish women who were followed for nearly 40 years, from their late thirties to their early fifties. The women in the study underwent periodic psychiatric evaluations and answered questionnaires about stressors such as divorce, job strain, death of a spouse, and health problems in a relative.

Symptoms of distress uncovered by neuropsychiatric exams, interviews, hospital records, and registry data were diagnosed according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III-R) criteria.

During the follow-up period, 153 women developed dementia, 104 of whom had Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The number of psychosocial stressors and long-standing distress were independently associated with AD.

One explanation for the finding relates to the hypothesis that stress can cause a number of physiologic reactions in the central nervous, endocrine, immune, and cardiovascular systems, as it has been reported to increase the activity of glucocorticoid hormones and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This can cause structural and functional damage to the hippocampus and affect learning and memory, as well as other important neurologic processes.

However, more studies are needed to confirm those results and investigate whether more interventions such as stress management and behavioral therapy should be initiated in middle-aged individuals who have experienced psychosocial stressors.