THE QUESTION Might the everyday stresses experienced in middle age play a role in the development of dementia later in life?
THIS STUDY analyzed data on 800 women, 38 to 54 years old at the start of the study. They were periodically given neuropsychiatric exams and a battery of standardized tests. The data collected included information on 18 common stressors, including divorce, serious illness or death of a child or spouse, mental illness or alcohol abuse in a close relative and job loss or other work-related problems. The researchers also collected information on symptoms of distress the women experienced, including irritability, fear and sleep problems. In the next 38 years, 153 of the women developed dementia, at an average age of 78, including 104 cases of Alzheimer’s disease. Those who had experienced the most stress in midlife were 15 percent more likely than the others to have developed any type of dementia, and 21 percent more likely to have developed Alzheimer’s nearly four decades later.
WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? People of middle age and older. Dementia, a decline in memory, reasoning and other intellectual skills that in time affects speech and personality as well as the ability to go about daily tasks, is caused by damage to brain cells, but why it develops in some people but not others is largely unknown. The risk, however, increases greatly with age.
CAVEATS Data on stress experienced by the women came from their responses to questions. The study did not determine whether different stressors — short-term or chronic, severe or minor — had differing effects or whether treating stress might make a difference. The study did not test whether the findings applied to men.
FIND THIS STUDY Sept. 30 online issue of BMJ Open.
The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.