Older Adults with Stress Can Raise Their Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

As the older adult population continues to rise worldwide, an increasing number of people are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  For many, mild cognitive impairment is the initial sign. Mild cognitive impairment occurs prior to dementia and significantly increases one’s vulnerability of developing Alzheimer’s in the future months or years. Recent studies from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System (both located in New York) have explored the association between chronic stress and amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), which is the most common form of mild cognitive impairment, the main characteristic of which is memory loss.  507 participants were enrolled in the Einstein Aging Study (EAS) in which they were tested for a wide variety of cognitive issues.
Since the beginning of 1993, the EAS has been systematically recruiting 507 adults aged 70 years and over who reside in Bronx County, NY. Participants were given annual assessments such as clinical evaluations, neuropsychological tests, psychosocial measures, medical history, evaluations of activities performed on a daily basis and reports of memory problems and other cognitive complaints by participants and their loved ones or care givers. Since 2005, the EAS used the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) to evaluate stress. All the participants were evaluated at their first PSS assessment and were found to be free from aMCI or dementia.  They then went to at least one follow-up evaluation each year for about 3.6 years.

71 participants were eventually diagnosed with aMCI during the course of the study.  The higher their stress level was, the greater their chance of developing aMCI. Specifically, for every 5-point increase in PSS scores was a 30% increase in risk of developing aMCI.

The participants of the study were separated into five groups in accordance to their PSS scores ranging from high stress in the first group to low stress in the last group. The researchers of the study found that participants in the first group with the highest stress were almost 2.5 times more likely to develop aMCI than those in the remaining four groups combined (with low stress).  Participants in the high-stress group were also more likely to be female, to have a lower level of education, and higher levels of depression.

The researchers then assessed whether depression had an influence in the role of stress in increasing the risk for aMCI, but found that depression did not appear to have any significant relationship. Mindy Katz, who is first author of the study, said, “Perceived stress reflects the daily hassles we all experience, as well as the way we appraise and cope with these events. Perceived stress can be altered by mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive-behavioral therapies and stress-reducing drugs. These interventions may post-pone or even prevent an individual’s cognitive decline.”

Since stress is curable, the study’s results show that identifying and treating stress in elderly people may contribute to the delay or even prevention of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Seniors living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities may be suffering due to stressful events, such as loss of a loved one or the residential move from the community to a long-term care facility. Care providers of these kinds of facilities can help to alleviate residents’ stress by providing them with the best quality care.