Most women I know are so busy being everything to everyone that they never take a moment out for themselves. In fact, they wear so many different hats… mom, homemaker, sister, caretaker, breadwinner, cook, wife, counselor, aunt, coworker, chauffeur and best friend to name just a few… that I’m surprised they aren’t all walking around with a permanent pain in the neck from all that weight.
We already know that all the heavy responsibilities women bear… and the stress that goes with it… can really start to take its toll on your health. But now a new study shows us just how costly that toll could be, linking stress and dementia. Researchers say if you don’t stop and take some time out to smell the roses every once in a while, your brain might just decide to go on a permanent vacation of its own.
Just last week I warned the gentlemen about the tragic consequences stress can have on their ability to stay on their feet (if you missed that issue click here to catch up on the NorthStar Blog). This week it’s your turn, ladies, to find out just how serious of a threat stress and dementia can be to your health.
Stress and dementia risk
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, found that women who spend their days riding the stress train in middle age are at a greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s later in life.
Eight hundred Swedish women were followed for nearly four decades starting when they were in their late 30s to early 50s. During that time, the women were periodically given psych exams and were questioned about their level of everyday stress.
Over 37 years, 19 percent of the women… 153 in total… developed some sort of dementia—with Alzheimer’s disease in the lead. But it’s what researchers found next that was really quite shocking.
The risk for dementia rose right alongside the number of life stressors the women had reported decades earlier. In fact, for each stressor… for example job strain, divorce, or family health issues… the risk of Alzheimer’s shot up by 17 percent!
And don’t think you’re off the hook if you are one of those gals who can take it all in stride, and you’re not feeling particularly overwhelmed by the stressors in your life. According to the researchers, just HAVING those stressors—regardless if you feel outwardly stressed about them—appears to raise your risk.
And the bad news didn’t end there.
In follow up interviews over the years, the women were asked if they had experienced anxiety, nervousness, sleep problems, irritability or other signs of distress. The link between stress and dementia was very much evident -- women who reported being distressed over several decades also had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s in their senior years.
And let’s be honest here, what woman do you know who doesn’t deal with one of more of these symptoms on an almost daily basis? It’s kind of like asking, “Did you breathe today?”
So just what’s going on here?
Well these findings, of course, don’t prove that high-stress living causes Alzheimer’s. As I’ve explained before, a study of this sort can only highlight an association or a link, such as the link between stress and dementia. But, as I’ve also pointed out in the past, when you see a whole lot of smoke it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s a fire burning somewhere.
As I mentioned earlier, we already know that long-term stress is linked to illness. You see, when you’re chronically stressed your adrenal glands pump out too much of the hormone cortisol. Now normally cortisol isn’t a bad thing. Your body uses this important hormone for lots of processes including helping you maintain your blood pressure, metabolizing fats and carbs, and maintaining your blood-sugar levels.
But when you’re super stressed out for a long period of time, and your adrenals make too much cortisol, those elevated levels can increase your risk of heart disease, depression, memory problems and even weight gain.
And now some scientists believe we should add Alzheimer’s to that list.
Lower stress and build brain support
We can’t yet say for sure that stress spikes your Alzheimer’s risk, but signs are certainly pointing in that direction. And since we do know that stress is bad news for your health, there’s no time like the present to commit to lowering your levels of this potential killer, to reduce your both your stress and dementia risk.
To get started read my 10 Steps for Reducing Cortisol Levels. I wrote this report specifically about holiday stress, but the advice works all year around.
Next, if you’re not getting some kind of regular exercise, you should change that. Something as simple as a daily walk after dinner with a friend or spouse can do wonders to relieve stress. Or perhaps try some low impact tai-chi which has been keeping Chinese seniors healthy and happy for thousands of years.
To build up some protections against Alzheimer’s, try vitamin E which one study found could slash Alzheimer’s risk by up to 54 percent. Just be sure it’s the all-natural form with mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols.
And for general brain support try omega-3 fatty acids, which may slow brain aging (learn more about the brain benefits of omega-3's on the NorthStar blog), a vitamin B complex and the brain-friendly Mediterranean diet.
And last but not least, carve out some time just for yourself every day. During “me” time, do whatever it is that makes you happy and relaxed… read a book, grab 40 winks on the sofa or take Fido out for round of fetch. Remember, you can’t possibly be everything to everyone, and you may pay the ultimate price for trying.