New research suggests that stressful and traumatic life experiences can age the brain by several years. Wisconsin University’s school of medicine and public health led a team of experts in the US and found that even one major stressful event earlier in life may impact brain health later on.
The team examined a sample of 1,320 people who reported stressful experiences over their life time and underwent tests of thinking and memory. The average age of the subjects was 58, and it included 1,232 white Americans and 82 African Americans.
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A series of neuropsychological tests examined several areas, including four memory scores [immediate memory, verbal learning and memory, visual learning and memory, and story recall].
A stressful life experience can be losing a job, death of a child, divorce, or growing up with a parent who abused drugs or alcohol. The results showed that a larger number of stressful events was linked to poorer cognitive function in later life.
The team found that African Americans experienced 60 per cent more stressful events than white people during their lifetimes. In their case, each stressful event was equivalent to approximately four years of cognitive ageing. It comes as no surprise that white Americans faced less stressful events because African Americans are also subjected to racial discrimination.
The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association international conference in London.
Dr Maria Carrillo, the chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “The stressful events that the researchers were focusing on were a large variety... the death of a parent, abuse, loss of a job, loss of a home... poverty, living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, divorce.” She said that even a change of school could be regarded as a stressful life event for some children.
Dr Doug Brown, the director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it’s no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life. However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia.”
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“Studying the role of stress is complex. It is hard to separate from other conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are also thought to contribute towards dementia risk.
“However, the findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events. As we improve our understanding of risk factors for dementia, it is increasingly important to establish the role that stress and stressful life events play.”
This article originally appeared in The Guardian