Research into the impact of stress on dementia

Little is known about how stress might affect the development of dementia. Research Communications Officer Jess Smith looks at a study exploring the impact of how people respond to stress.

We hear many people say that their dementia - or its symptoms - began shortly after a period of intense stress. Yet there hasn't been a lot of research to really find out how stress influences the development of dementia, if at all.

There is evidence that stress can worsen other conditions, such as heart disease and multiple sclerosis. If we knew more about how stress could affect the development of dementia, we might be able to improve its management and treatment.

Healthier ways to respond to stress

Mixed results

Previous studies have shown mixed results. Some studies have found that people may recall a period of great stress just before the onset of their symptoms.

Other studies have shown a relationship between cognitive deterioration and stress shortly before the onset or worsening of dementia symptoms in people already predisposed to developing the disease.

Still other studies have concluded that there is no relationship between stress and cognitive decline in healthy people.

These mixed results could point to stress affecting the rate of decline in people who are already developing dementia, or whose symptoms are in the early stages.

New study

To investigate this, Alzheimer's Society has awarded funding for a study that will look at the ways in which people cope with stress and how this influences progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease.

People with mild cognitive impairment experience less severe symptoms than people with dementia and their symptoms may not even progress to dementia. However around 60 per cent of people with mild cognitive impairment - including problems with memory - go on to develop Alzheimer's disease within five years.

The Society-funded study is being led by Professor Clive Holmes at the University of Southampton. It involves people aged 70 and over who have mild cognitive impairment, compared with a control group of people with no memory problems.

The study began recently by measuring the biological markers of stress in participants' blood and saliva to provide a starting point.

The researchers will ask them about stressful events during the 18 months of the study. The participants will also be asked about how they cope with stress.

It is impossible to lead a stress-free life, and so it is important to find out how we can better cope with stress, either through psychological stress-management techniques or with drug treatments.

Professor Holmes says,

'We are looking at two aspects of stress relief - physical and psychological - and the body's response to that experience. Something such as bereavement or a traumatic experience - possibly even moving home - is also a potential factor.'

Coping with stress

By understanding how stress affects us and can contribute to the development of dementia, as well as the factors that help some people to cope better with it, we hope to be able to help people to lessen its impact on their lives and perhaps reduce theirrisk of developing dementia.

Professor Holmes says,

'All of us go through stressful events. We are looking to understand how these may become a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer's.'

He adds,

'This is the first stage in developing ways in which to intervene with psychological or drug-based treatments to fight the disease.'

This study is one example of the research that Alzheimer's Society is funding that will help us to better understand some of the factors that can contribute to dementia. If successful, it is hoped that the results from this study could be used to help people to prevent cognitive decline.

You can find out more about our research programme and see what other projects we are currently funding.

Subscribe now