A Good Reason to Chill Out - the Link Between Chronic Stress and Alzheimer's Disease

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Let’s talk about chronic stress and Alzheimer’s disease for a moment. Getting stressed just thinking about it? That’s a good reason to think about your stress level and what you can do to lower it.

    First the news: A new study from University of South Carolina Researchers have found that chronic physical or mental stress can cause a genetic reaction that may hasten development of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. According to DNA Daily News and Analysis, the researchers’ findings suggest that this type of stress may cause the overexpression of a gene called RCAN1. “Think of a gene as a pattern or mold that generates specific proteins. For example, if 200 RCAN1 proteins are built where only 100 were needed, scientists would describe this as ‘overexpression’ of the RCAN1 gene,” the DNA Daily News and Analysis website reported. “In a healthy person, the RCAN1 gene helps cells cope with stress. Overproduction, however, can eventually damage neurons, preventing the brain's signals from traveling and causing disease.”

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    So what can you do? First of all, let’s define chronic stress. According to Dr. Andrew Weil who is a clinical professor of medicine and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, chronic-stress is long-term and has its roots in our evolutionary past. When faced with a life-threatening or dangerous situation, our bodies have a built-in “fight or flight” response so we can react to the event. This reaction results in immediate physiological responses that increase blood pressure, heart rate and respiration and decrease action in the digestive tract and other non-essential body systems. “The problem, however, is that this system now operates inappropriately in our modern world,” Dr. Weil noted. “Although heavy traffic, work deadlines and credit card statements are not life threatening, the system is activated by our response to them, often many times throughout the day. This is chronic stress, and over time the repetition of the ‘fight or flight’ response, designed to allow us to survive occasional real threats, begins to alter our everyday physiology and health.”

    There are steps that you can take to lower your chronic stress level. Some of Dr. Weil’s recommendations, which are followed by my advice, include:

    • Determine the cause of the stress.  My advice: there are lots of causes of stress and if you’re a Type A personality, that list can get pretty long. My list at various stages of life has included work and caregiving. But if you identify what gets to you, you can take steps to make appropriate changes.
    • Strengthen your support system. My advice: when you’re under stress, it’s easy to pull away from people, but that’s exactly what you don’t want to do. Build a support system that lets you blow off steam.
    • Don’t be afraid to say “no.” My advice: I always used to say “yes” until I found my schedule was jam-packed and my stress level was sky-high. Therefore, value yourself and say “no” to give yourself a break. True friends will understand and appreciate your stance.
    • Simplify your life. My advice: consider dropping resposibilities and activities that don’t promote your sense of well-being. 
    • Express your feelings. My advice: if you’re stressed, tell someone. If it’s the person who is causing the stress, try to work together to develop a mutually agreeable and workable solution.
    • Improve lifestyle habits. My advice: yep, that means exercise and eating healthy, which is really easy to do during the summer months.
    • Laugh it off. My advice: Find a way to laugh, whether watching funny videos or movies or hanging out with young kids (who often are really funny).
    • Try mind-body exercises. My advice: try yoga, meditation, and tai chi.
    • Take a media break or news fast. My advice: the political talk shows can definitely get your adrenaline pumping. I’ve found that turning them off helps me keep emotional sanity. Try it; you'll probably really like it!

    Lowering your chronic stress level can not only make your day-to-day life more enjoyable, but also may be a way to keep Alzheimer’s disease at bay. That’s worth easing off life’s gas pedal and maintaining a less tense but healthier existence.

Published On: June 30, 2011