We all know stress is bad. It certainly ruins our quality of life.
Several studies have shown that stress increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Now a new study shows stress also might increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Since my mom died of Alzheimer’s, this is one study I really paid attention to. Let’s look at the data. Back in 1968, scientists did a mental health study looking at 800 Swedish women born between 1914 and 1930. Each one was interviewed by a psychiatrist and given a battery of tests. Every five years, the women were tested and interviewed.
Among other things, researchers were looking at stressors – things such as the death of a child, divorce, extramarital affairs, physical illness, loss of employment, finances, alcoholism in a family member – all the things we can agree promote stress.
Since that time, 425 women (average age 79) have died. All underwent autopsies. One in five women were shown to have had dementia or Alzheimer’s.
When the researchers looked back at the questionnaires and interviews of these women, they found that for those who were “stressed,” the risk of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s increased by 21 percent. The more stressors they had, the greater the risk – those reporting four or more stressors were the most likely to suffer.
Why is this? Several studies show that stress hormones are bad for the heart and bad for the brain and also alter immune functions. These stress hormones might even make functional alterations in the brain.
No one knows for sure, but with this in mind what action can you take to protect your brain?
• Make an inventory of the stressors in your life, dividing them into those you can control and those you cannot. Then take action where you can. Try using the Serenity Prayer – you know the one: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
• Ask for help if you need it. Social networks, family and friends are the buffer from life’s travails. I have always found that talking to a friend – in my case, my best friend is my wife, Penny – can help me sort out the junk from the stuff that really matters.
• Think about taking up yoga or perhaps breathing meditation. Many Americans have embraced these Eastern forms of mind stabilization as a way to reduce stress. Why not try it?
My spin: This latest study shows that stress takes its toll and can even destroy brain cells. Taking action just might reduce your risk of getting this dread disease and make your life better.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7.