How Chronic Stress May Increase the Likelihood of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease

Back in the day, when life was simpler, and people just used to hunt, eat and sleep, factors like stress and anxiety were not as prevalent as they are today.

However, a modern-day man has much to worry about, like his future, taxes, and societal obligations, just to begin with.

Coincidently, we also see a rapid increase in the number of people affected by degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

It indeed makes you wonder, can Alzheimer’s be caused by stress?

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually starts slowly and worsens over time. It is the most common cause of dementia (forgetfulness) in the elderly.

Senior woman sitting on the beach.

AD is accompanied by symptoms such as progressive, gradual, and irreversible dementia, memory loss, behavioral changes such as pessimism, loss of social status, and decreased speech without altering sensorimotor functions.

Complications like cognitive dysfunction, neuronal atrophy, and synaptic loss are seen in AD. These features are seen in people under stress as well. Thus, making it evident that Alzheimer’s and stress affect the same region of the brain.

What Causes Alzheimer’s?

The deposition of something called “Aβ amyloid plaques” in neurons leads to Alzheimer’s. In essence, amyloids are misfolded proteins that are toxic to cells.

Therefore, their deposition at sites hinders the brain’s normal functioning and, in turn, leads to degeneration. 

The accumulation of this protein in brain cells is the hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

Moreover, these extracellular plaques and intracellular tangles damage the healthy brain cells around them, leading to the death of damaged cells and shrinking the brain.

Such changes cause AD symptoms, such as memory loss, speech problems, confusion, and mood swings. 

Although the underlying mechanisms leading to AD development are not clear, other risk factors that can cause Alzheimer’s include age, genetic predisposition, traumatic brain injury, lifestyle, malnutrition, diabetes, immune system dysfunction, and psychiatric factors.

Apart from these, some other possible causes may be chronic stress, oxidative stress, and inflammation.

Stress and Alzheimer’s

So, to address the elephant in the room, can stress cause Alzheimer’s?

Under stress, the hypothalamic center of the brain is stimulated. The hypothalamus releases hormones that activate the pituitary gland (located just beneath the hypothalamus; hormone center of the body) to, in turn, stimulate the production of a hormone called cortisol from the adrenal gland (located above kidneys).

This is the HPA(Hypothalamus-Adrenal-Pituitary) axis of the body. 

Furthermore, cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of functions in the body, including immune response and metabolism in stress. 

However, its overproduction, as in a state of chronic stress, can lead to adverse complications.

Studies on humans showed that high levels of corticosteroids might enhance the progression and the risk of AD. 

In a sample consisting of 1865 cognitively healthy subjects, elevated urinary cortisol levels could predict the increase in the risk of AD by an average of 6 years before the onset of the actual disease.

Theorizing, Alzheimer’s can be caused by stress.

High cortisol levels can affect the immune system of the body. As a result, they can alter various physiological processes and make you prone to depression, anxiety, and early-onset dementia.

They can directly affect the pathological processes of Alzheimer’s. 

Cortisol, in excess, is found to damage the memory center of the brain. Therefore, high cortisol levels may reduce your ability to learn and retain new information (short-term memory loss).

The Vicious Stress-Alzheimer Cycle

As mentioned above, stress induces increased production of glucocorticoids (GCs) such as cortisol.

Prolonged exposure of cortisol in the body leads to neurogenic destruction of memory cells, making a person prone to Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). 

AD disrupts the body’s stress circuits balancing the cortisol releasing mechanism. As a result, further unregulated production of cortisol worsens AD’s symptoms, and the cycle goes on.

It makes sense how the onset of AD is in late adulthood, but the progression is very rapid.

Coping With Stress

Considering all the studies mentioned above, managing stress is not just crucial in terms of carrying on with your daily life but also for preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s. 

As AD doesn’t have a proper treatment or medication that can cure it completely, managing stress is the best way to handle it.

Stress reduction can reduce your risk of other conditions such as cardiovascular diseases as well. 

Here are a few tips for coping with stress:

Meditation

A simple yet powerful technique of breathing can be very therapeutic for your mental health. 

Studies show people who meditate regularly experience low mood swings, depression, anxiety and are generally happy. 

It is always beneficial to take out at least 10 mins for yoga from a stressful day, close your eyes, and gather thoughts while breathing deeply.

Exercise

Have you ever laid down on the bed after a tiring day and experienced a feeling of serenity rushing over your body?

Being physically active and getting proper exercise releases feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin that can significantly lift your mood. 

Incorporate a 30-minute workout or jog in the morning or evening. It helps to take your mind off stressful work and gather your thoughts.

Connect With Your Friends and Family 

When a person spends a lot of time alone, he is prone to feel lonely and anxious. The negative thoughts amplify, and excessive stress starts projecting.

In such cases, it is a good idea to reconnect with your friends or family, plan a trip or have a vacation. Things start to go smoothly once the stress and anxiety subside.

Enjoy Simple Pleasures

Some philosophers say the bane to all unhappiness is gratitude. The art of being thankful for what you have and not worrying about the things you don’t can make your life happier. 

Learn to be comfortable under your skin and don’t compare yourself with others.

Seek Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Woman with a smile on her face.

If nothing seems to work, seek help. Professionals suggest therapy if you are suffering from some sort of mental health issues or stress. 

Psychotherapists use CBT to help people change how they think about situations that may be contributing to stress.

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Conclusion

So, can Alzheimer’s be caused by stress?

Yes, as discussed, it is quite evident from studies that stress can cause Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, it is an incurable disease and the cases are increasing by the day.

Therefore, experts advise you to live stress-free and enjoy life as it is. Even the simple act of taking some time off from work will be good for you in the long run.

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