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Stress in middle age 'may increase dementia risk' for women


Going through divorce, losing a partner or work problems could lead to middle-aged women developing dementia in later life, a new study suggests.

Coping with a lot of stress in middle age may heighten the risk of developing the condition, researchers said.

Common stressful life events may have “severe and long standing physiological and psychological consequences” in the brain, they said.

The research, published in the online journal BMJ Open, gathered data from a long-term study of 800 Swedish women who underwent a battery of neuropsychiatric tests when they were first selected in 1968 and again in 1974,1980, 1992, 2000 and 2005.

At the initial assessment the women, who were all born in 1914, 1918, 1922 and 1930, were quizzed about the psychological impact on them of 18 “stressors” including divorce, widowhood, work problems and illness in a relative.

One in four women had suffered at least one stressful event, 23% reported two, one in five had suffered three stressors and 16% had been through four or more.

During the assessment period, 19% (153) women developed dementia with 104 of these being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The number of stressors reported in 1968 was associated with a 21% heightened risk of developing Alzheimer’s and a 15% heightened risk of developing any type of dementia, the analysis showed.

While the authors stressed that more research is needed to confirm the results of the study, they suggested that “stress may cause a number of physiological reactions in the central nervous, endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems”.

They also called for more investigations to assess whether stress management and therapy should be given to people who suffer from stressful life events.

“Our study shows that common psychosocial stressors may have severe and long-standing physiological and psychological consequences,” they said.

“The study shows that the number of psychosocial stressors, measured in middle-aged women, was related to distress and incidence of Alzheimer’s disease almost four decades later.”

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Readers' comments (5)

  • That's most nursing staff then.....

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  • So, being alive these days leads to dementia later.

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  • gosh, a wing filled with elderly nurses with dementia - is this a sad reality just like when I did my psychiatric module as a student nurse in a psychiatric clinic and visited my hospitalised GP and family friend on the floor below mine which was reserved for hospital staff, mainly senior doctors and sisters and this was in a London teaching hospital. I found it quite shocking.

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  • depression is associated with memory problems, it's prevalence increases with age, and is probably a pre-disposing factor to many dementias.

    my guess is that hippocampal neurogenesis is affected by depression, and that in the ageing brain this can turn into a runaway effect (in the presence of other pe-disposing factors; genetic, environmental, etc.)

    perhaps aggressive diagnosis and treatment of both pre-senile and senile depression would reduce the currently increasing burden of dementia.

    or perhaps this has already been tried and found wanting? if anybody knows, i'm always happy to be disabused of any of my erroneous hypotheses :-)

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  • Anonymous | 9-Oct-2013 1:09 am

    well done. maybe more should be done in school to encourage greater hippocampal development and volume.

    Do you think the London cabbies whose hippocampii are notoriously large would be slower to develop depression and dementia?
    A study of retired cabbies or others who have enlarged hippocampii due to a larger than normal memory store would be interesting.

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