Managing stress early in life may be ‘crucial’ for preventing dementia

Steve Thompson recalls signs of his early-onset dementia

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The causes of dementia remain poorly understood, but it’s believed not all cases are preventable. Leading a healthy lifestyle is paramount for keeping brain health in good nick, however, and there are many ways this can be achieved. According to one expert, mitigating stress early in life may be “crucial” for preventing cognitive decline.

Gary Small, MD, Chair of Psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Centre, discussed some measures to forestall the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, during a presentation at BRAINWeek 2022.

He said: “This is something that is affecting all of us – our own ageing and memory concerns and also those of relatives and friends.”

To address the matter, Small used the example of regions in the world with a higher rate of older adults living beyond their 80s ad 90s.

He explained that non-genetic factors implicated in lifespan include healthy habits with respect to exercise, diet, mental activity and social interactions.

Getting better sleep, making social connections and performing focused exercises such as Tai Chi may also boost immune response and cognitive strength.

The expert added, however, that stress mitigations are especially crucial as elevated stress levels lead to a twofold greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

This was confirmed by a 35-year longitudinal population study, in which researchers found that middle-aged women who experienced stress had more than twice the risk of developing dementia, compared to those who were worry-free.

The stress-dementia connection was significantly higher in women who had been through significant stressors in mid-life.

This is because the key hormone released during stress, known as cortisol, has been linked to problems with memory.

It’s been theorised that stress triggers a string of biological reactions which cause damage to the hippocampus.

These effects, it’s been noted, are most prominent when stress becomes chronic.

What’s more, stress is also closely linked to conditions such as depression and anxiety, which have both been implicated in the development of dementia.

Separate animal studies have highlighted the fact that in mice, stress hormones are linked to higher levels of amyloid and tau protein, which is a key characteristic of Alzheimer’s.

This region of the brain manages key functions like memory, which is most affected in neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This has led some scientists to suggest that stress hormones, which are significantly elevated in humans, may not be a consequence of the disease but the cause.

Fortunately, a healthy diet, practising meditation and deep breathing techniques and exercising regularly can all help stave off complications related to stress.

Weight and BMI should also be carefully managed as they both have negative correlations with memory.

Healthy eating habits, which support self-perception, may provide motivation to make further better health decisions, noted Small.

He added: “If you know broccoli is a better side dish than french fries, you’re more inclined to choose broccoli.

“Brain healthy habits can improve our quality of life right now and possibly stave off future symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s.”

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