Stress in mid-life has been linked to a heightened risk of dementia in late life, with stressors contributing up to a 20 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease, according to investigators in Sweden.

The brain may experience long-lasting physiological changes in response to common stressful events, researchers say.

They base their findings on 800 Swedish women whose mental health and wellbeing was formally tracked over a period of almost 40 years as part of the larger Prospective Population Study of Women in Gothenburg, Sweden, which started in 1968.

At their initial assessment, the women were surveyed about the psychological impact of 18 common stressors, including:

• Divorce

• Widowhood

• Serious illness or death of a child

• Mental illness or alcoholism in a close family member

• Personal or partner’s unemployment, and

• Poor social support

The women were assessed at intervals, for six times total, and symptoms of distress, such as irritability, fear, and sleep disturbances, and how often they had experienced these in the preceding five years, were noted at every assessment.

The number of stressors reported in 1968, the year of the first survey, was associated with a 21 percent heightened risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and a 15 percent heightened risk of developing any type of dementia, the analysis showed.

“Stress may cause a number of physiological reactions in the central nervous, endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems,” the authors noted. They point to other studies showing that stress can cause structural and functional damage to the brain and promote inflammation.

Results were published in the British Medical Journal.

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