Stress Can Cause Alzheimer's Disease to Worsen

by Dorian Martin Patient Advocate

You don't realize how powerful stress can be until you're placed in the middle of the vortex. And you don't realize how stress can affect people - those with dementia and those who don't - who live in a nursing home.

Take, for instance, the situation in West, Texas. As most of your probably know, a fertilizer plant exploded on April 17, reeking major destruction on the buildings near it. One of those buildings was a nursing home, which was within walking distance of the plant. While much of the nursing home was destroyed, most of the residents survived the first blast.

A recent Associated Press story pointed out that nearly two months after the explosion, 14 of the nursing home's residents have died, which is approximately twice as many residents who would normally have died over the same period at West Rest Haven. Experts and relatives believe that the unusual blast of the explosion could have caused these residents to die sooner than was expected.
Why would this happen? The nursing home's medical director surmised that the shock of the blast combined with other types of loss (such as homes that they had lived in previously, vital documents, paperwork and keepsakes that had been collected over their life) is to blame. "If they were already ill, that may be just enough to push them over the edge," Dr. George Smith, the medical director, said.

The story pointed to a 94-year-old resident who had dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Because of the destruction to the nursing home, she had to be transferred to four different nursing homes, where her relatives reported that she didn't received as good of care. The resident fell, developed a bedsore and then her health declined rapidly. Her family said that the blast wasn't a direct cause of this death, but it had contributed significantly to the speed of the end.
Another resident who was 89 and who had dementia ended up becoming more confused after the blast. He passed away as well.

And based on my experiences with my mother, it doesn't have to be the level of stress caused by the fertilizer blast. Take moving to another wing of a nursing home. In Mom's case, the nursing home decided to close the locked Alzheimer's unit and move the residents to another wing. Mom was quite disoriented at first, even though I had put a colorful quilt on her bed to help her recognize her room. Eventually, though, she bounced back.
However, another resident who seemed to be at about the same stage as my mother didn't do as well in the move. I always stopped to chat with her in the locked unit and she had become one of my favorite residents. I didn't see her for a bit after the big move and eventually did see her propped up in a wheel chair. She had a glassy look to her eyes, seemingly looking "through" everything instead of "at" something. She died soon afterwards. Obviously, there could have been some other health issues in her case, but I do believe the trauma of the move - which most of us could handle with no problem - contributed to her backslide.

And that shouldn't be surprising, based on a 2005 story in ScienceDaily. Researchers out of University California, Irvine found that stress hormones seem to increase the formation of brain lesions that are seen in Alzheimer's disease. The study suggests that managing stress is one key component in slowing the progression of this condition.

Therefore, it is really important to find ways to maintain a calm atmosphere around a person who has dementia. Avoid rapid change, keep a consistent schedule and reduce other stress-inducing situations (such as loud arguments or violent television programs). Those small steps can help your loved one tremendously.

Primary Source for This Sharepost:

Associated Press. (2013). After blast, nursing home deaths higher than usual.

ScienceDaily. (2006). Stress significantly hastens progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Dorian Martin
Meet Our Writer
Dorian Martin

Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.