Experts led by a team from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found that stressful life experiences can age the brain by several years, with even one major stressful event early in life potentially having an impact on later brain health.
The team examined data for 1,320 people who reported stressful experiences over their lifetime and underwent tests in areas such as thinking and memory.
The people were 58 years old, on average, and included 1,232 whites and 82 African-Americans. The stressful life experiences they were tested for included things such as losing a job, a child’s death, divorce, or growing up with a parent who abused alcohol or drugs.
A series of neuropsychological tests examined several areas of potential reprecussion including four memory scores — immediate memory, verbal learning and memory, visual learning, and memory and story recall. The results showed that a larger number of stressful events was linked to poorer cognitive function in later life.
When looking specifically at African-Americans, the team found they experienced more than 60 percent more stressful events than white people during their lifetimes.
Researchers said that in African-Americans, each stressful experience was equivalent to roughly four years of cognitive aging.
The study was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London.
Maria Carrillo, PhD, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “The stressful events that the researchers were focusing on were a large variety … the death of a parent, abuse, loss of a job, loss of a home … poverty, living in a disadvantaged neighborhood, divorce.”
Even a change of school could be regarded as a stressful life event for some children, she said.
Doug Brown, PhD, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it’s no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life.
“However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia. Studying the role of stress is complex. It is hard to separate from other conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are also thought to contribute toward dementia risk.
“However, the findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events.”
He said it was important to establish the role that stress and stressful life events play, adding: “To unravel this, more research is needed over a longer time scale. If you are experiencing stress or worried about your health, it’s important to visit your GP.”
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