New Research Shows Chronic Stress Accelerates Alzheimer's Disease
I know what you're thinking - "I don't need another reason to avoid chronic stress!" I agree, but this one's worth hearing, nonetheless.
My hat goes off to Sara Bengtsson, a doctoral student at Umeå University in Sweden whose dissertation focuses on the link between chronic stress and the acceleration of Alzheimer's disease. Her study centers on the role of stress steroids and their effect on the brain.
You see, when we are stressed out, we produce chemicals such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and allopregnanolone. Allo-what? I know, it sounds like something women produce when they're expecting, but it's actually a steroid that we make under duress. Over long periods of time, levels of these chemicals can rise, wreaking havoc on our physical and emotional health.
Bengtsson took mice that were genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer's disease and exposed them to chronically high levels of allopregnanolone (poor mice…but it's in the name of science). She found that exposure to this stress steroid accelerated the development of Alzheimer's disease in the mice in two different ways.
First, the mice responded to cognitive tests with impaired learning and memory functioning. Second, they showed increased levels of beta amyloid in the brain. Beta amyloid is a sticky, mysterious protein, and its accumulation in the brain is a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease (though we can't actually say it's a cause). Even more telling was that the buildup of beta amyloid corresponded with disturbances within the brain's synapses - the small gaps between brain cells that allow for communication between those cells.
This was an innovative dissertation that explored an area in dire need of research. We've long been told that staying mentally active (as well as physically and socially active) is good for the brain because new connections between brain cells are formed through novel activities. But while recommendations for brain health frequently focus on what to add to our lives, they often don't focus enough on what to avoid. Stress is a prime example.
Is chronic stress part of your life? I'm not just talking about occasional stressors that impact all of us (traffic, minor disagreements or deadlines, for example). I'm talking about intense interpersonal conflict, overwhelming work conditions, looming financial struggles, or debilitating health conditions that persist day after day, year after year.
If this sounds like your life, it's time to make a change. Resolve to get some help from a qualified professional - whether it be a physician, mental health clinician, or other form of emotional or practical support - and start making some changes that can relieve the chronic stress that is wearing you down. You just might be saving your brain while you're also drastically improving your quality of life.
Bengtsson, S. (2013). Stress steroids as accelerators of Alzheimer's disease: Effects of chronically elevated levels of allopregnanolone in transgenic AD models (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://umu.diva-portal.org/smash/search.jsf