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Can Stress Cause Alzheimer’s?

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Our health and well-being are affected by how we feel. You’ve likely heard about the healing power of hugs, or laughter is the best medicine. Meaningful experiences or prolonged emotional states can significantly impact the mind and body.

Unfortunately, negative emotional states can be similarly impactful. For example, memory impairment is a common problem associated with a stress-related illness. The brain manages stress by focusing mental resources on fight-or-flight, pulling focus from memory functions. As a result, long-term stress can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Although stress increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease, it is not the sole cause. Instead, stress is often attached to a group of factors contributing to declining brain function.

The Stress Cycle

Excessive stress levels can cause and worsen various diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Over time, continued high-stress levels can increase the risk of comorbidities (additional or related health issues), such as anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior.

Alzheimer’s disease can disrupt the brain’s ability to mediate stress responses. So instead of recovering from stress, the levels increase and carry on long after they should have relaxed. As a result, stress becomes a cycle. The brain’s decreased coping ability leads to more stress, which leads to decreased coping ability, creating a loop that’s difficult to break.

Seniors may also lack access to the resources they need to help manage stress. Or they may be unable to use common tools designed for people with different physical or mental abilities. Without management or health tools, the brain doesn’t get the rest and calm it needs to perform routine functions—including processing memory.

A group of young and old women are exercising and stretching workouts during a yoga class in a fitness studio.

Exercise & Stress

Exercise is one of the most common ways people manage stress. Physical activity stimulates endorphin production (the feel-good hormone). In addition to improving mood, staying active can also counteract the negative physical impacts of mental and emotional stress. 

Exercise calms the flight-or-fight response. It also supports multiple body systems, including the cardiovascular, digestive, and immune systems.

Unfortunately, aging can make movement—especially strenuous activities—more challenging. Older adults may be discouraged by decreased mobility, health problems, aches, or concerns about injuries. Seniors may also experience more balance problems and dizziness, often as a complication of health conditions or medications.

But staying active can promote healthy aging by:

  • Boosting mood
  • Improving sleep & energy levels
  • Maintaining cognitive function
  • Reducing stress & anxiety
  • Strengthening independence

Finding ways to add safe, healthy movement can sometimes require creativity. Regardless of fitness level or physical abilities, seniors can modify activities or exercises to meet their needs. For example, play a round of musical chairs or participate in aerobic chair exercises. Everyday hobbies like gardening or bird watching are also opportunities to keep moving.

Depression & Stress

Stress is how the body reacts to impactful events, whether they seem big to everyone else or only to the individual. Long-term stress can also influence our brain processes, leading to maladaptive changes (the inability to adjust behavior). Getting stuck in a process or behavior can make it more difficult to make it better alone, which can develop into depression.

Older adults have an increased risk of depression because of the following:

  • Lack of activity or exercise
  • Medical conditions
  • Social isolation & loneliness
  • Sleep problems

Alzheimer’s disease can share many of the same symptoms as depression. Therefore, it can also increase the likelihood of developing depression, as many of the risk factors are present. 

Depression and stress are concerns for developing Alzheimer’s and dementia at a younger age. The overstimulated brain is overwhelmed, potentially increasing brain inflammation and weakening nerve maintenance—so the brain cannot repair itself as effectively.

Preventing and treating depression can help reduce the risk of health problems. Unfortunately, older adults experiencing depression or stress may lack interest in activities or exercises or may not want to talk about how they feel. Consequently, their symptoms can create a barrier to seeking help.

Family members and caregivers may need to take steps when they recognize signs. For many older adults, sadness is only one possible symptom. Common signs of depression in older adults can include:

  • Anxiety, irritability, or restlessness
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Eating more or less than usual (unplanned weight change)
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Sleeping poorly or oversleeping

Older adults may need the encouragement of family or caregivers to seek medical treatment. They may also need help from their loved ones to implement any prescribed changes or assist with medication management when necessary. Being surrounded by resources and a caring community can make it easier for seniors to receive the care they need.

Destressing with Memory Care

Alzheimer’s and dementia can have many causes, so older adults often need many coping tools. Preventing or managing stress protects their emotional health—and emotions are a pivotal part of living healthily. Your loved ones deserve the support and resources needed to destress and engage with meaningful experiences.Memory care can offer complete care, from services to social events, to help improve quality of life. Contact us to learn how a senior living community may benefit your loved one. Or request a visit to see our thriving community!

Ryan Donahue

Written by Ryan Donahue, Regional Vice President

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