Stress has long been considered a major risk for developing Alzheimer’s, but there hasn’t been any real understanding as to why this is so. Now, researchers at the Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease at the University of Florida think that they’ve come closer to discovering the connection.
Dr. Todd Golde, director of the Center, and his team have found how a hormone released by the brain in response to the body’s stress increases production of a protein associated with Alzheimer's development. The study was conducted by analyzing the brains of mice that had been subject to acute stress and then comparing them with the brains of non-stressed mice. What they found, according to Dr. Golde, is that a stress hormone triggers enzyme activity that increases beta-amyloid production. Beta-amyloid is thought by most scientists to be at the root of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers feel that their new found knowledge can be used in the quest to develop a drug that may one day prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease.
As mentioned previously, stress as a trigger for Alzheimer’s isn’t a new concept. In March of 2013, a doctoral thesis by Sara K. Bengtsson, Department of Clinical Sciences, Umeå University, Sweden, was published that examined this exact concept.
Bengtsson’s study found that the steroid allopregnanolone, one of the steroids produced by a body under stress, can inhibit general brain activity in mouse studies. Her thesis suggested that a similar acceleration of chronic stress related Alzheimer’s disease in humans could mean the difference between living independently at home and needing earlier professional care.
Women and stress equals Alzheimer’s?
Several studies have shown that more women develop Alzheimer’s than men. This was made abundantly clear after the 2015 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference took place recently in Washington, D.C.
According to the Alzheimer's Association 2014 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report, a woman's estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's at age 65 is one in six, compared with nearly one in 11 for a man.
There could be a number of reasons for this. Statistically women live longer than men, they have much more estrogen, and they may have a genetic predisposition to the disease. However, one of the biggest reasons could be that women tend to be society's caregivers.
Women are mothers. Women are daughters who do the bulk of caregiving for their elders. Women are wives who care for their husbands who are often older and in poorer health.
Caregiving is stressful. According to a Stanford study, “Researchers have discovered that Alzheimer's caregivers have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than non-caregivers. In fact, 40 percent of Alzheimer's caregivers die from stress-related disorders before the patient dies.”
Therefore, Alzheimer’s is a woman’s issue. Yes, it’s an “everybody issue,” but Alzheimer’s affects women disproportionately. What affects women also affects men and children. There is an acute need to find answers to how Alzheimer’s develops. This new study on stress could provide us with some of those answers.
Meanwhile, since developing a drug to combat the damaging effects of stress could be years off, we must realistically do what is possible now to mitigate excessive stress. We can aim for lifestyle changes. Exercise, diet, meditation and improving personal relationships can go a long way toward lowering stress levels.
We can also participate in ongoing Alzheimer’s clinical trials. Developing a new drug to combat what could be devastating effects of stress on the brain would be a leap forward for us all.