stress

Stress in midlife affects cognitive decline later in life

  • A large long-running study found that stressful life experiences (but not traumatic events) during middle-age were associated with greater memory decline in later life — but only for women.
  • A large long-running study found that middle-aged adults with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol had poorer cognition than those with average cortisol levels, and this was also associated with greater brain atrophy.
  • A study found that older adults (65-95) who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions showed greater fluctuations in cognitive performance.

Stressors in middle age linked to cognitive decline in older women

Data from some 900 older adults has linked stressful life experiences among middle-aged women, but not men, to greater memory decline in later life.

Previous research has found that the effect of age on the stress response is three times greater in women than in men.

Having a greater number of stressful life experiences over the last year in midlife in women was linked to a greater decline in recalling words later and recognizing those words. There was no association, however, to traumatic events — suggesting that ongoing stress has more of a negative effect on cognition.

The data came from 909 Baltimore residents participating in the National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, begun in 1981. Participants were an average age of 47 during their mid-life check-in in the 90s.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-08/jhm-im080219.php

https://www.futurity.org/mid-life-stress-women-memory-alzheimers-2127072-2/

Stress hormone linked to impaired memory, smaller brain in middle age

Data from 2,231 participants (mean age 48.5) in the Framingham Heart Study has found that adults in their 40s and 50s with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol had poorer cognition than those with average cortisol levels. Higher cortisol was also associated with smaller brain volumes.

There was no association between higher cortisol level and APOE genotype.

Age, sex, smoking and body mass index were taken into account in the analysis.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-10/uoth-sci102418.php

Response to daily stressors could affect brain health in older adults

A study following 111 older adults (65-95) for 2½ years, has found that those who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions and reported a more dour mood in general showed greater fluctuations in their performance on cognitive tests.

Cognitive testing occurred every six months, for six days over a two-week period.

Stressful events and emotional reactions were assessed by self-report.

Interestingly, there were age differences. For the oldest participants (late 70s and older), being more reactive to stressors than usual contributed to worse cognitive performance, but those in their late 60s to mid-70s actually did better on the test if they reported more stressors.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-11/osu-rtd111918.php

Reference: 

Munro, C. A., Wennberg, A. M., Bienko, N., Eaton, W. W., Lyketsos, C. G., & Spira, A. P. (2019). Stressful life events and cognitive decline: Sex differences in the Baltimore Epidemiologic Catchment Area Follow-Up Study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 34(7), 1008–1017. https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.5102

[4483] Echouffo-Tcheugui, J. B., Conner S. C., Himali J. J., Maillard P., DeCarli C. S., Beiser A. S., et al.
(2018).  Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures.
Neurology. 91(21), e1961.

[4482] Stawski, R., Cerino E., Witzel D., & MacDonald S\.
(Submitted).  Daily Stress Processes as Contributors to and Targets for Promoting Cognitive Health in Later Life.
Psychosomatic Medicine. 81(1), 81 - 89.

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Psychological distress a risk factor for dementia

  • A large Danish study has found that the greater number of symptoms of distress in late midlife, the more likely the individual was to develop dementia later in life.

Survey data from 6,807 Danish older adults (average age 60) in the Copenhagen City Heart Study, has found that being distressed in late midlife is associated with a higher risk of dementia in later life.

The survey measured “vital exhaustion”, which is operationalized as feelings of unusual fatigue, increased irritability and demoralization and can be considered an indicator of psychological distress. Vital exhaustion is suggested to be a response to unsolvable problems in individuals' lives, in particular when being incapable of adapting to prolonged exposure to stressors.

The study found a dose-response relation between symptoms of vital exhaustion reported in late midlife and the risk of dementia later in life:

  • for every additional symptom, dementia incidence increased by 2%
  • those reporting 5 to 9 symptoms had a 25% higher risk of dementia compared to those with no symptoms
  • those reporting 10 to 17 symptoms (the maximum) had a 40% higher risk of dementia compared with not having symptoms.

Results were adjusted for gender, marital status, lower educational level, lifestyle factors and comorbidities.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-01/ip-pdi011719.php

Full paper available at: https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad180478

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Concrete thinking may reduce the power of traumatic memories

  • Focusing on concrete details when experiencing a traumatic event may, oddly enough, protect you more from the power of those memories, than if you tried to distance yourself from what you are experiencing.

Can you help protect yourself from the memory of traumatic events? A new study suggests that, by concentrating on concrete details as you live through the event, you can reduce the number of intrusive memories later experienced.

The study, aimed particularly at those who deliberately expose themselves to the risk of PTSD (e.g., emergency workers, military personnel, journalists in conflict zones), involved 50 volunteers who rated their mood before watching several films with traumatic scenes. After the first film, they rated their feelings. For the next four films, half the participants were asked to consider abstract questions, such as why such situations happened. The other half were asked to consider concrete questions, such as what they could see and hear and what needed to be done from that point. Afterward, they gave another rating on their mood. Finally, they were asked to watch a final film in the same way as they had practiced, rating feelings of distress and horror as they had for the first film.

The volunteers were then given a diary to record intrusive memories of anything they had seen in the films for the next week.

Both groups, unsurprisingly, saw their mood decline after the films, but those who had been practicing concrete thinking were less affected, and also experienced less intense feelings of distress and horror when watching the final film. Abstract thinkers experienced nearly twice as many intrusive memories in the following week.

The study follows previous findings that emergency workers who adopted an abstract processing approach showed poorer coping, and that those who processed negative events using abstract thinking experienced a longer period of low mood, compared to those using concrete thinking.

Further study to confirm this finding is of course needed in real-life situations, but this does suggest a strategy that people who regularly experience trauma could try. It is particularly intriguing because, on the face of it, it would seem like quite the wrong strategy. Distancing yourself from the trauma you're experiencing, trying to see it as something less real, seems a more obvious coping strategy. This study suggests it is exactly the wrong thing to do.

It also seems likely that this tendency to use concrete or abstract processing may reflect a more general trait. Self-reported proneness to intrusive memories in everyday life was significantly correlated with intrusive memories of the films. Perhaps we should all think about the way we view the world, and those of us who tend to take a more abstract approach should try paying more attention to concrete details. This is, after all, something I've been recommending in the context of fighting sensory impairment and age-related cognitive decline!

Abstract thinking certainly has its place, but as I've said before, we need flexibility. Effective cognitive management is about tailoring your style of thinking to the task's demands.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/uoo-tdc050516.php

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More evidence that stress increases risk of Alzheimer's

  • A stress hormone has been found to be associated with more amyloid-beta protein, in mice and human neurons.
  • The finding helps explain why stress is a risk factor for Alzheimer's.
  • A previous 38-year study supports this with the finding that women who scored highly in "neuroticism" in middle age, had a greater chance of later developing Alzheimer's.
  • This link was largely accounted for by chronic stress experienced by these women over the four decades.

A study involving both mice and human cells adds to evidence that stress is a risk factor for Alzheimer's.

The study found that mice who were subjected to acute stress had more amyloid-beta protein in their brains than a control group. Moreover, they had more of a specific form of the protein, one that has a particularly pernicious role in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

When human neurons were treated with the stress hormone corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), there was also a significant increase in the amyloid proteins.

It appears that CRF causes the enzyme gamma secretase to increase its activity. This produces more amyloid-beta.

The finding supports the idea that reducing stress is one part of reducing your risk of developing Alzheimer's.

A neurotic personality increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease

An interesting study last year supports this.

The study, involving 800 women who were followed up some 40 years after taking a personality test, found that women who scored highly in "neuroticism" in middle age, have a greater chance of later developing Alzheimer's. People who have a tendency to neuroticism are more readily worried, distressed, and experience mood swings. They often have difficulty in managing stress.

The women, aged 38 to 54, were first tested in 1968, with subsequent examinations in 1974, 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2005. Neuroticism and extraversion were assessed in 1968 using the Eysenck Personality Inventory. The women were asked whether they had experienced long periods of high stress at each follow-up.

Over the 38 years, 153 developed dementia (19%), of whom 104 were diagnosed with Alzheimer's (13% of total; 68% of those with dementia).

A greater degree of neuroticism in midlife was associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer's and long-standing stress. This distress accounted for a lot of the link between neuroticism and Alzheimer's.

Extraversion, while associated with less chronic stress, didn't affect Alzheimer's risk. However, high neuroticism/low extraversion (shy women who are easily worried) was associated with the highest risk of Alzheimer's.

The finding supports the idea that long periods of stress increase the risk of Alzheimer's, and points to people with neurotic tendencies, who are more sensitive to stress, as being particularly vulnerable.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-09/uof-uhr091615.php

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-10/uog-anp101414.php

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