Can stress cause dementia?

Is stress linked to the risk of dementia? Our Research team decided to examine the evidence behind stress and the risk of dementia.

Many people wonder whether stress is linked to risk of dementia, and the news often reports a link between the two. This Stress Awareness Month, our Research team decided to examine the evidence behind stress and risk of dementia.

What is stress?

Stress occurs when the body has to respond to a situation that could be dangerous. Symptoms include a pounding heart, sweating, and tense muscles.

These symptoms are supposed to fade away once the danger passes, but some people may find that these stressed feelings continue. This prolonged – or chronic – stress can be very serious and have severe effects on a person emotionally, mentally and physically.

Why has stress been linked to dementia?

There are many logical reasons why stress could be linked to dementia. Stress affects the immune system, which is known to play an important role in the development of dementia.

A key hormone released when you’re stressed, cortisol, has been linked to problems with memory. Stress is also closely linked to conditions such as depression and anxiety, which have also been suggested as factors that could increase the risk of dementia.

Some research has found that stress appears to have a direct impact on some of the mechanisms underlying dementia in animal models.

However, as with many things in the research world, understanding whether any of these theories are correct has turned out to be a long and winding road.

A complicated situation

It is very hard for researchers to investigate stress. We all experience stress in different ways and our ability to cope with stress varies widely from person to person. It is also very difficult to measure exactly how stressed someone is.

There are also other factors that could be playing a role that is difficult to separate out – for example, the role of anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep, all of which have been associated with increased dementia risk. These complications mean that it is very difficult to do high-quality research into the role that stress has in dementia risk.

However, a few studies have attempted to untangle this mystery.

What does science say about stress and dementia?

A review of the scientific literature on stress and dementia risk concluded that stress could play a role in dementia development but is unlikely to be the only factor that causes the condition. There is still much to be understood about what mechanisms could underlie any links between stress and dementia risk.

Our dementia advisers are here for you.

A study funded by Alzheimer’s Society is examining whether long-term stress may play a role in whether someone progresses from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to Alzheimer’s disease. Lead researcher Clive Holmes says:

'Understanding the role of the immune system in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is of great importance to researchers. As prolonged stress can cause changes in the immune system, we wanted to find out if this was linked to progression to dementia from mild cognitive impairment.

'Our investigations show that stress does appear to have an effect on progression in mild cognitive impairment. Our preliminary (unpublished) findings are showing that this may be mediated through a fault in the regulation of the immune system in people with mild cognitive impairment but we are continuing to investigate this further.'

Some researchers looking into long-term stress and dementia have focused on people who are affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is a diagnosed condition that occurs when a person has been through a life-changing or distressing event.

Research into the link between PTSD and dementia has found an increased risk, however, having PTSD does not mean you will definitely develop dementia.

If I am affected by stress, should I worry about getting dementia?

The current evidence indicates that while prolonged stress may play a role in the development or progression of dementia, having chronic stress does not necessarily cause dementia.

Hopefully, further research can begin to uncover what role, if any, stress does play in a person’s risk of developing dementia.

Having long-term stress does cause a number of health issues so if you are experiencing stress it is a good idea to see your doctor, especially if you might be affected by PTSD.

How to deal with stress

There are a number of useful tools available now that can help to combat stress - the NHS Choices website has a list of many of them.

Visit NHS Choices
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18 comments

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My mother has been diagnosed with altzhimers, she is unable to have a brain scan, the diagnosis was made using the 100 question test and she scored 48/100, however she doesn’t have common symptoms, I’ve experienced dementia lots of times but her behaviours are different, could a shock or stress have caused the dementia?

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Hi Deb,

We're sorry to hear about your mother’s diagnosis.

The link between stress and dementia risk is still unclear, and because stress is experienced by people in different ways, it is tricky to measure. We know stress is common in individuals who have mental health conditions like depression, which is a risk factor for dementia development. However, we still need to unpick if and how stress can increase the incidence of dementia.

Please know that you or your mother can always call our support line on 0333 150 3456 if you need any information, support, or advice from one of our trained dementia advisers. You can find out more about our support line here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

We hope this helps.

Alzheimer's Society research team

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My husband has w form of dementia due to radiation. Will he possibly get better in time ? Any idea how long ? The Who, what, when are the problem. He does well in conversation and Jeopardy , and driving in familiar areas.
How can I find out reading material ?

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Hi Nancy, thank you for your comment and sorry to hear about your husband's condition.

I wasn't sure from your message whether he has already received a diagnosis of a particular form of dementia? If not, this would be a good place to start, as a formal diagnosis can help him to access the right support. There is some more information about this here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/symptoms-and-diagnosis/dem…

Unfortunately, most dementias do not get better over time, even with treatment. However, there are some treatments available which can slow down the progress of symptoms – you can read more about them here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/treatments-….

If your husband has already received a diagnosis and you're looking for more reading material, we have lots of free publications that you may find helpful. You can see what we have available here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/publications-factsheets

The dementia guide (for the person living with dementia) and 'Caring for a person with dementia: a practical guide' (for carers) are particularly useful after a diagnosis.

I hope this is helpful, Nancy. If you'd like any more information, support or advice, please don't hesitate to call our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456.

Best wishes,

Alzheimer's Society blog team

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I am 70 and am a member of a large extended family now mostly dead. All the people in the family that have developed dementia, have been married to more dominating emotionally colder people than themselves. It seems to me that living in a permanent state of stress caused by an cold uncaring partner can lead to depression and then dementia. I have now been in this situation for 30 years and I am now find that I am having recall problems, especially in moments of stress. As I struggle to recall a plant name and I see again the look of impatience on my partners face, any chance of my remembering, being prevented by his irritated production of the right word, my heart sinks, and the surge of stress in my chest rises. I think we should be also looking closer to home for other causes of dementia, as well as foreign battle fields. When visiting my late Father in Law, in care 15 years ago, my heart was broken by a youngish ex Army Officer, politely asking me where the exit door was, as he softly told me he seemed to be having a bit of trouble locating it. So you see, I'm a softy and softies suffer more and can be more damaged by even the pretty average but relentless everyday domestic stress.

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Kindness and acceptance is in short supply.
Helpful post. Thankyou

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I know exactly how you feel, couldn’t have said it any better. Just tired of you family walking in and telling taking over when it suits them, ‘let me do it’ when all of the rest of the time no one bothered to do anything!
I worked full time until I was 69, four kids, moved 3 countries, with very little help and now I worry about being like my mother.
She had the same life as me and ended up with dementia. I am sure stress and over taxing your brain is the cause. A non sympathetic, no all partner who likes to bring you down at the least sign of happiness.

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Diane, Im a 34 year old married mom of 3. I too suffer from being a "softy" and my metal health has taken the backburner allowing my husband to take advantage of my kindness. The stress put on my heart from his irritations has been terrible in the past, im hoping things will continue to get better. I agree with you 100% that this is a major contributor to our brains, Im only 34 and already have memory loss issues which has put me in a scare. Ive thought about this before and when i saw your post i felt like you hit the nail on the head, thank you for sharing your story and i agree we should look closer to personal relationships.

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Hello Diane. Your letter really touched me. Being a fellow softie and from a very bullying family I hear your sentiment loudly.

My connection to dementia is my role as Advocate visiting care homes. Seeing its ruthless outcomes every is beyond tragic. It seems such a cruel caprice for nature to assign to those who have shouldered the hurts of others during their life.

I would say live your best life. Make every day count and feel no guilt for the odd slip of memory. Sometimes we assign diagnoses to ourselves that doesn't always equate or fit. It's just another way of beating ourselves up, doing the work of the abuser.

Honestly, live as if you dont have this condition. Life is once. Unhappiness needs our complicit support.

You could try Wim HOF breathing exercises. Phenomenal physiological outcomes to richly oxygenising the brain and body. Lots on youtube.

I wish you well. Be kind to yourself and remember psychological abuse is still abuse. There will be groups online to offload and better process your issues at home.

Om Shanti

Peter

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I am 53 and of late my memory is terrible, not just older age forgetting to get the chops out of the feezer! I was in the Army and as a welfare had to see and be in very traumatic situations. My Dr just guessed there was something quite wrong and after a few simple tests I am refered to a memory clinic, as I have suffered 3 very serious head injurues at age 7, 38 & 44 so possibly looking at CET/ punch drunk syndrome. On top of that referal to counsellor has diagnosed severe PTSD. I am convinced that alone we possibly have two different diagnosis that need yet to be confirmed, but I am pretty sure there is dementia & PTSD may be a contribution to that. I bet its going to take a long time to find the answers. Each few days things get worse and I am frightened as I am only 53! If anyone would like to talk to me for help in research I would gladly give you help in that research so please contact me if I can help.

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This is Rachael. Hi, all the results from specialists showed I have Minor Cognative Impairment coupled with PTSD. The MCI of course could turn to Early onset Dementia in the years to come, but could settle down, as forgetting atuff can be linked to PTSD, and generalised anxiety disorders! Beat thing to do for anyone, see your GP, getting tested with brain scans, see specialist services and go from there! Never hang around guessing or hoping!!

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Hi Rachel, Have you herard of DR Dale Bredsen book, the end of alzheimers. worth checking. Michael

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Hi Michael, thanks for your comment.

The Bredesen Protocol (which is a focus of the book you’ve mentioned) is a type of alternative therapy that intensively uses diet, physical activity, nutritional supplements, and herbal medicine to 'reverse' dementia. It is mostly sold through the services of alternative health practitioners, particularly naturopaths and nutritional therapists.

Given what we already know about risk factors for dementia, it makes sense that managing health issues (such as vitamin deficiencies, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure) would have a positive effect on someone’s memory and thinking abilities. Despite some claims, there is no firm evidence that this type of intensive lifestyle regime can ‘reverse’ Alzheimer’s disease, so the way this approach is being marketed is concerning.

A holistic and person-centered approach to treating dementia is welcome, but Professor Bredesen’s intervention would need to be properly tested in clinical trials so that people can make informed decisions about its benefits. As you’ve mentioned, the evidence is currently lacking.

Here’s more information on what we do know helps to reduce the risk of dementia: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-preventio…

We hope this is useful.

-
Alzheimer’s Society research team

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Thank you for publishing my thoughts I was in care for many years and noticed people I looked after had lost someone or had troma in their life. My mom is right now in hospital and she was diagnosed a few years ago with the onset of dementia as I recognised the signs it took a long time to convince her to do something about it I was called a cruel person for even mentioning it I was shot down by my own daughter telling me how nasty I was being to my mother but I was right in the end unfortunately. My mom has explained tonight to a nurse how she tried to save her soulmate he had died she was going through radio therapy at the time but she got his heart beating until ambulance arrived sadly he did die and that's when I started noticing a change, yes I'm sure stress brings it on it might already be there somewhere but stress starts the ball rolling I'm sure. Once again thank you for that article

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I found your article quite interesting.
It confirms a lot of thoughts I have had concerning stress and dementia.
I know someone who has been in a state of high anxiety due to his wife's dementia
and worry over financial affairs.
His memory has been declining and he shows other signs of the onset of dementia.
My husband recently passed away after having suffered for many years of with
dementia.

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You should help him with his wife or find someone that will. I thought I had early symptoms but it was just exhaustion and extreme stress. I am getting better since resting and getting rid of taking care of everyone but myself. I'm not sure he wont get Alzheimer's if his life continues with him being overloaded.

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nice article!!

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Brilliant article with fantasic links to all we might like to know about STRESS and how to manage it, PLUS its relationship to Cognitive impairment and consequences plus researches. Thank you. As a carer, and under considerable stress as one can imagine, I am very interested in this subject, for myself. And much food for thought as to how it might have affected my husbands diagnosis of vascular dementia, as his cognitive awareness is deteriorating; he definitely is unable to cope with stressful situations, not only now but as early on in our marriage. So good knowing something else. Thank you

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