Stressful life experiences 'can age brain by years'

James Marshall
July 17, 2017

The new research, presented at a conference in London on Sunday, looks at how stress and dementia are related, with the results helping account for higher incidents of such degenerative diseases among African Americans in the USA, who are nearly twice as likely to suffer from the disease over the age of 65.

Stressful life experiences can age the brain by several years, new research suggests. Her team's research-one of the studies presented Sunday-took a look at people born in states with high infant mortality rates (a red flag of social problems like poverty).

These lifelong effects of stress and disadvantage could be direct, perhaps in line with previous research showing that sustained stress can physically alter the brain. The effects may also be the outcome of cascading effects such as when disruptive events influence a person's early schooling, which then limits his achievements later in life.

When combined with just one hour a week of social interaction, it improved patients' quality of life and eased their agitation, the researchers said. "It is the social environment that's contributing to disparities".

"People with dementia who are living in [nursing] homes are among the most vulnerable in our society", said study leader Clive Ballard.

"Not one of these things is good news - except that they are modifiable", Zuelsdorff said.

Researchers have long theorized that blacks are at higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease due to genetics and higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases in this population.

A third study showed that racial inequities in dementia risk that had previously been found among the younger elderly, also exist among the "oldest-old", which was defined as 90 years or older.

Another study from the University of Wisconsin found that people in disadvantaged neighborhoods had disproportionately higher levels of biomarkers linked to Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia.

During the period that the research focused on ‒ between 1964 and 1973 ‒ the infant mortality rate of black people was almost twice as high as that of whites. African Americans were 40% more likely to develop dementia in these states, while other groups' risk wasn't linked to place of birth.

Participants from the poorest areas scored around 25 per cent below average, even after age and education were accounted for.

"It is hard to separate from other conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are also thought to contribute towards dementia risk". "We should really think about brain health as a lifelong concern".

The researchers have mapped over 30 million neighborhoods in the USA based on socioeconomic data and then analyzed it against available information on Alzheimer's disease patients.

Researchers examined data of 1,320 people who reported stressful experiences over their lifetime and underwent tests in areas such as thinking and memory. The findings from a large-scale trial led by the University of Exeter, King's College London and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust were presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2017 (AAIC).

"This linkage between neighborhood disadvantage and Alzheimer's has never been explored until our work", said Amy J. Kind, a physician and researcher at the University of Wisconsin. The findings back up earlier studies that link stress and changes in the brain. Although the questionnaire also asked respondents to rank the impact of those disruptive events, Zuelsdorff's study focused only on the number of such events themselves.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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