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Stressful Middle Age & Alzheimer's Risk in Women

Swedish study looked at effect of issues such as divorce, job strain over nearly 4 decades

WebMD News from HealthDay

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By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Oct. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Women who deal with a lot of day-to-day stressors in middle-age may have a somewhat higher risk of developing Alzheimer's later in life, a new study suggests.

The findings, published online Sept. 30 in BMJ Open, do not prove that your job or your family are raising your dementia risk. But experts said they add to evidence that chronic stress may contribute to the development of Alzheimer's disease in some people.

No one is sure why, but there are theories, according to Robert Wilson, a professor of neurological sciences and psychology at Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago.

It's possible that chronic stress, via effects on certain hormones, may reduce the efficiency of people's "brain circuitry," explained Wilson, who was not involved in the new study. And that could leave some people more vulnerable to the impact of Alzheimer's-related brain changes later in life.

But past studies have generally focused on the possible effects of stress from more-severe traumas. The new study looked at "common" stressors, said lead researcher Lena Johansson, of the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University, in Sweden.

Her team studied data from 800 Swedish women who were followed for nearly four decades, starting when they were in their late 30s to early 50s. The women underwent periodic psychiatric exams and answered questions about everyday stressors -- such as divorce, job strain and family members' health issues.

Over 37 years, 19 percent of the women developed dementia -- most often Alzheimer's disease. And the risk climbed in tandem with the number of life stressors that the women had reported four decades earlier. For each stressor, the risk of Alzheimer's crept up 17 percent.

That doesn't prove that a stressful life is to blame, said Dr. Marc Gordon, chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.

But, he noted, the researchers did account for a number of other explanations for the link -- including whether the women had high blood pressure or diabetes, were overweight or had low incomes.

Other studies have tied heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, to Alzheimer's, and lower income and education levels have also been linked to the disease.

Still, Johansson's team found, stressors themselves were connected to an increased risk of Alzheimer's.

Gordon, who was not involved in the study, agreed that it's "biologically plausible" that chronic stress could contribute to dementia. But a big unanswered question is whether any efforts to reduce stress in your life can also trim the risk of Alzheimer's later on.

"This type of study can't tell us if there's an intervention that can affect people's outcomes," Gordon said. "We can't make any recommendations based on this alone."

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