Does Chronic Stress Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?

Does stress cause Alzheimer's Disease?

Photo courtesy of bottled_void

I try to focus on the lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and yet often I can’t help but wonder WHY.

Why did my mother develop Alzheimer’s disease? The question seems pointless; I can never reach a definitive answer, and yet it nags at me, especially when I see new dementia research trying to determine the same thing.

I’ve recently read about a new research study focused on chronic stress and the part it plays in triggering Alzheimer’s disease. Is there a link between chronic stress and dementia? I find this an interesting angle for medical pursuit because I’ve always wondered if my mother’s difficult and extremely stressful life contributed to her ultimate demise from dementia. She was the poster child of stress, a woman on her own constantly struggling and desperate for various reasons throughout all the stages of her life.

The lead investigator for the UK Alzheimer’s Society’s new chronic stress study is Professor Clive Holmes, who 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. This is the first stage in developing ways in which to intervene with psychological or drug based treatments to fight the disease.”

My mother’s stress level was compounded by anger, a seething hatred that never diminished, even twenty years after her divorce. I saw this anger eat away at her from middle age until Alzheimer’s disease claimed the rage along with the rest of her memories. Could this lifetime of difficulty and anger have caused my mother to develop Alzheimer’s disease? Something in my heart tells me stress did play a part after witnessing her troubles as a spectator all those years. Though I’ll never be able to prove it, maybe research will.

The role that stress might play in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease is further explained by Professor Holmes as it relates to his new study:

“There is a lot of variability in how quickly that progression happens; one factor increasingly implicated in the process is chronic stress. That could be driven by a big change – usually negative – such as a prolonged illness, injury or a major operation.
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.”

Bingo. My mother hit the stress trifecta in 1996: the man she loved died unexpectedly, she was laid off from her job, and she became embroiled in a nasty family feud. The well known dementia symptoms of cognitive decline, memory lapses, paranoia and even hallucinations became apparent soon afterwards. Was it merely a coincidence that these symptoms, four years later confirmed as Alzheimer’s, increased significantly after these stressful events? I’ve always wondered if there was a connection as 1996 was such an awful year for my mother, and she never recovered. It marked the beginning of the end.

As I mentioned already, I always try to come back to the lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s life and heartbreaking death. Alzheimer’s is a cruel teacher, but nothing has opened my eyes to life more than this insidious killer. I truly believe that stress and hatred contributed to my mother’s illness. For this reason, I embrace compassion and practice forgiveness, and this philosophy has helped me to overcome anger and reduce the stress in my own life so that I might live more fully and appreciate all that I have here and now. It’s the best that any of us can do under the circumstances: reduce the risks believed to increase the odds of developing dementia.

What’s your experience with stress as it relates to Alzheimer’s disease? Do you think chronic stress or long-term anger played a part in your loved one developing Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia?

Brought To Our Senses family saga novel by Kathleen H. Wheeler

4 thoughts on “Does Chronic Stress Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?

  1. bubba nonuthin

    In answer to your possible fear of getting alzheimers…stress causes it exclusively. Do not believe anything else.

    It works like this…your mother suffered from ECTA (early childhood trauma or abuse) her brain went into stress mode…and her forming personality went into a charicature of itself…making the “defense budget” the number one area to enhance…so it perceived stress in anything and most everything.

    When this happens it works like this…amygdala sends message to hippothalamus, sends message to pituitary, opens the adrenal cortisol flood gates (on kidneys)

    The hippocampus does opposite to amygdala…closes flood gates, as cortisol is both toxic to the hippocampus and other regions of the brain (acts like sandpaper) AND makes person’s blood saturated with the stressful discomfort of high cortisol levels (until, over a long long time, the ability to produce cortisol also drops…exhaustion and major bodty damage stage.) As this process cycles, each time the hippocampus shrinks…bombarded by too much cortisol for too long. This create a vicious cycle that makes the levels linger higher and for longer. The hippocampus is also responsible (all brain parts have multi-cascade function) for MEMORY AND LEARNING (you cant learn well without memory in operation)…end game over time…death from organ failure, or dimentia and death from organ failure.

    You should worry if you have a similar life style…if not…educate others as unfortunate as your mother.

    1. Kathleen H. Wheeler Post author

      Thank you for your thoughts on the subject. Somehow I’m convinced that stress did play a significant part in my mother’s illness, I just can’t prove how much. I do work towards inner peace and happiness to eliminate stress in my own life and for those that I love. And it is crucial to raise awareness about dementia and the difficulties it will present to families trying to care for loved ones who are afflicted, especially with the epidemic predicted in the next 20-30 years.

  2. J T

    My mother in law was an uptight women, busy working all her life. She chose work over her children and for many many years, lived a stressful lifestyle which leads to her frequent outbursts. Recently, she was diagnosed with moderate stage Alzheimer. I have observed her for years, and yes, I believe stress and frequent angst/unhappines leads to damage of brain cells.

    1. Kathleen H. Wheeler Post author

      I’m so sorry to hear of your mother-in-law’s diagnosis,and I appreciate your thoughts on the impact of stress. I truly believe it plays a role somehow. I wish you peace and compassion so that you may help with her care, she will need much love and support through a difficult journey.


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