Stress in middle age may increase women’s risk of dementia, say experts

Stress in middle age may increase women’s risk of dementia, say experts
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Researchers say that if stress hormone levels increase and remain high, it isn't good for the brain's hippocampus, the seat of memory. © Shutterstock

It is a known fact that stress is bad for health. Now a new research says that if a woman experiences stressful life events during middle age, it can negatively affect her memory. It may also increase her risk of dementia later in life. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University followed 337 men and 572 women between 1982 and 2004 from the long-running National Institute of Mental Health study. All the participants of the study had an average age of 47 years. They are asked to undergo several check-ups and interviews in this time period.

In the final check-up, participants had to reveal if they had experienced a traumatic event in the past year like combat, rape, a mugging, any other type of physical attack, watching someone else attacked or killed, receiving a threat, or living through a natural disaster. They also had to say if they had experienced any stressful life experiences like marriage, divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, severe injury or sickness, a child moving out, retirement, or birth of a child. All participants had to complete a learning and memory test at the third and fourth visits. Researchers measured any decreases in performance on the tests.


The findings, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, showed that for women, more stressful life experiences over the last year in midlife was linked to a greater decline in the memory test. The more stressful life experiences the women had, the more difficulty they had with the test. But they did not see the same association in women who experienced traumatic events. This could be because long-term stress or chronic stress, like the one experienced during a divorce, may have more negative impact on brain functioning than distinct traumatic events.

According to study author Cynthia Munro, “A normal stress response causes a temporary increase in stress hormones like cortisol, and when it’s over, levels return to baseline and you recover. But with repeated stress, or with enhanced sensitivity to stress, your body mounts an increased and sustained hormone response that takes longer to recover.”

Researchers say that if stress hormone levels increase and remain high, it isn’t good for the brain’s hippocampus, the seat of memory. Men did not display any association between their performance on tests and stressful life experiences or traumatic events in midlife.


Psychological stress in middle age may cause dementia later in life, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden studied data from a study that followed women for 35 years. This was the first research in Sweden to indicate a link between stress and dementia. The scientific journal Brain published this study. A representative sample of women were examined for the first time in 1968 when aged between 38 and 60, and then re-examined in 1974, 1980, 1992 and 2000.

A question about psychological stress was included in the 1968, 1974 and 1980 surveys and was answered by 1,415 women. Stress was defined as a sense of irritation, tension, nervousness, anxiety, fear or sleeping problems lasting a month or more due to work, health, family or other problems. During the 35 years of the study, 161 participants developed dementia, mainly Alzheimer’s disease. The risk of dementia was about 65 per cent higher in women who reported repeated periods of stress in middle age than in those who did not. In women who reported stress in all three surveys, the risk more than doubled.


The two studies mentioned above clearly says that you need to avoid stress if you want better mental faculties in old age. Here we tell you how you can do this.

Be part of a community

Your friends can be your support system. You can also join a religious community, a social club or a volunteer’s group. This will make you feel loved and wanted. Social interactions can be a great stress buster.

Be positive

Consciously try to maintain a positive attitude at all times. Look for the good even in negative situations. Know that you can’t control circumstances. Even if you get angry, just try to control it or change it to assertiveness.

Relax to beat stress

Go for a long walk. Try to be with nature. Meditate. Travel. Listen to music. All this will help you to relax. You may be too busy and stressed trying to cope with daily life. But make time for yourself and do things you enjoy.

Develop a hobby

You are never too old to get a new hobby. See what you like and immerse yourself in a new activity. It will kindle your creativity and make you happy. A new interest is a great way to take your mind off stressful things.

Get enough sleep

This is very important. If you are stressed out, give your body time to recover. The best way to do this is to get enough sleep. Be sure to sleep for at least 7 to 8 hours every night.


The World Health Organisation says that you can prevent dementia with a few lifestyle improvements. So, for better mental health in later years, you need to make the necessary changes in your middle age itself. Here we tell you how you can go about this.

Exercise more

Regular exercise offers many benefits. It will make you happier and energetic. It will also reduce your risk of chronic diseases and make you physically stronger. And, most important of all, it will boost mental health. So be sure to exercise regularly. Just 15 minutes of exercise is also enough.

Have a balanced diet

Eat nutritional and well-balanced meals. Include a lot of fruits and green leafy vegetables to your diet. Have a lot of whole grains and starches, good fats and lean proteins. A healthy diet will reduce your risk of cancer, heart diseases and diabetes. It will make you happier and boost your mental health.

Avoid alcohol

Having more than three drinks per day can increase cognitive decline, cognitive impairment and raise the risk of dementia. Brain damage common among alcoholics. Even mild-to-moderate drinking can adversely affect memory.

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