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One More Thing to Stress About: Midlife Stress and Your Brain

Stress in middle age may increase dementia risk, says new study.

After the alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m., each day brings a new set of challenges: deadlines and responsibility at work, AP history homework, French quizzes, soccer carpools, meetings at school, dogs that need to be walked and a hardworking husband who is rarely home before 8 p.m. My mother died in February after a difficult illness, and still I sometimes wake in the middle of the night in grief and panic. Add to that list a new study to worry about: The stress of my life may be increasing my risk of getting  Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers in Sweden found that women who reported stress in middle life - stemming from such sources as family illness, problems with children and divorce - have a 20 percent higher risk of getting Alzheimer's disease later in life. For this study, researchers analyzed a long-running study of 800 Gothenburg women who were born between 1914 and 1930. Starting in 1968, scientists tracked the women for 37 years by asking them every few years about stressors and related symptoms such as irritability, fear and trouble sleeping. They found that common psychosocial stressors in midlife increase the risk for both Alzheimer's and dementia.

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The scientists, lead by Lena Johansson, Ph.D., of Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, speculate that stress may cause reactions in the body by increasing accumulation of the amyloid-beta and tau proteins that are linked to Alzheimer's disease, damaging the brain's hippocampus and increasing inflammation in the body that's linked to both dementia and heart disease.

I have a bit of a unique perspective into this particular study group because my husband is Swedish, I lived in Sweden for several years and we return to visit his family each summer. Unfortunately, my husband's mother - who fits the demographic of the women in the study - suffers from dementia.

I've often thought that family life in Sweden was less stressful than in the United States, mainly because of the safety nets providing health care and child care, generous maternity and paternity leave, and six weeks of yearly vacation. But even a wide and deep safety net cannot protect women from the harsh reality of life. The stressors tracked in the study included mental illness in a child or spouse, alcohol abuse in a spouse or parent, physical illness in a spouse and being divorced or widowed. We know that women often bear the brunt of such troubles.

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Luckily, I have not had to face many of these serious issues, and Johansson points out that mild social stress hasn't been linked to long-term health problems. To combat the stress that may be affecting my health, I try to exercise nearly every morning and rely on close friends for support and, well, wine therapy, but I still have to remind myself to breathe deeply several times a day. In. And out.

How about Johansson, who, at 41, is about the same age as the women in the study when  they were originally questioned? How does she handle stress in her life?

"I try to take it easier," she told NPR. "I know [stress] is dangerous for the brain. But it's one thing to know and another thing to really handle it. It's difficult for us all to change."

Photo credit: Neil Moralee

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