There are many risk factors associated with memory loss, but is there really enough evidence to show a link between stress and dementia?

While research is still ongoing around the world, there is a growing consensus that chronic stress could contribute to cognitive decline. In this blog, we will look at what experts are saying about the impact of stress on the risk of developing dementia.

What is stress?

 Before we dive into the science, we first need to define what we mean by ‘stress’. According to the NHS, stress is the body’s natural reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. We all need a certain level of stress in our personal and professional lives as it motivates us to achieve, and can improve performance.

However, too much stress is a bad thing as it can affect our mood, our physical health and our relationships. Being stressed for a prolonged period can ultimately lead to physical and mental exhaustion, known as burnout.

Why is stress often linked to dementia?

 According to the Alzheimer’s Society, stress has a direct impact on the body’s immune system, and this has been shown to play a causative role in developing dementia.

When the body is under stress, it releases a hormone called cortisol, and consistent high levels of cortisol have been linked to problems with brain function and memory. Long-term stress can also cause depression and anxiety, which have been shown to increase the risk of developing dementia.

There is some data from animal models that shows that stress directly contributes to some of the mechanisms that result in dementia.

What does the science say about stress and dementia?

 A review of the scientific literature on stress and dementia risk found that while stress could affect the development of dementia, it was unlikely to be the only factor. There is still plenty of work to be done to untangle the consequences of prolonged stress and how it affects different individuals.

Research published in the National Library of Medicine looked into the links between dementia and people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a diagnosed condition brought on by someone experiencing a life-changing or significantly distressing event.

While the data found that PTSD results in an increased risk of dementia, this does not mean sufferers will definitely develop dementia.

Recent research from Australia, published in Biological Reviews, found that chronic stress may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This could be due to an exaggerated response in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a pathway in the brain responsible for stress modulation, which can interfere with the body’s immune function.

This may lead to chronic disruption of normal brain processes, subsequently increasing the risk of neurodegeneration and dementia.

Experts suspect that the body’s reaction to stress might also be a reason why weight loss often occurs prior to dementia.

Finally, there has also been research published in the National Library of Medicine about the influence of chronic stress on dementia-related changes in older adults. It was found that there is an association between dementia and a relatively greater number of highly stressful life events and difficulties.

The results backed up the findings from a previous study which linked memory decline in those suffering mild cognitive impairment (MCI) with stressful life experiences.

Need support?

 If you are worried about stress or dementia, book a consultation with one of our psychiatrists. Alternatively, call us on 0330 124 1970 to arrange a free, no-obligation, Mini-ACE cognitive test (worth £100).

Reviewed by Dr Darren Cotterell, Consultant Psychiatrist, MBBCh, MRCPsych, MSc, FRCPS (Canada)

June 2022