There’s enough in life to stress about, but as it turns out, long-term stress might be more damaging than initially thought.
A new study released by the Alzheimer’s Association in July of 2017 revealed that those who experience consistent stress in their early life are most at risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia later in life. They also stated that the group most at risk in their study were minority groups, mostly Black Americans.
This new research was compiled using a variety of smaller studies that all came to a shared conclusion: African Americans disproportionately suffer from conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia, primarily due to prolonged stress in adolescence. Let’s dive into the specifics of how they came to this conclusion before discussing what this could mean for you.
Women, Pregnancy, and Childhood
As Regis College of Nursing notes, women disproportionately suffer from their own unique health issues. On this list is increased anxiety and depression due to hormonal imbalances that can happen throughout life. Pregnancy and menopause are some of the most common concerns for obstetricians and gynecologists, as the body is adjusting to an influx of abnormal hormone levels. However, these hormones can exacerbate the stress experienced by many Black Americans, which contributes to the rising risks around dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, as noted by the Alzheimer’s Association study, birth and pregnancy is tangentially tied to dementia risk. This is because areas with higher infant mortality often signify harsher living conditions, or generally poor health outcomes. The study states:
“A second study conducted by a health plan in Northern California found that African Americans born in states with the highest levels of infant mortality had 40 percent increased risk of dementia compared to African Americans not from those states (even after taking into account education, high blood pressure in midlife, body mass index, stroke, and diabetes), and 80 percent increased risk compared to Whites not from those states.”
Paolo Gilsanz, ScD, the researching professor with the University of California, San Francisco, uncovered this data. He focused his research on birthing census data from 1928 (when some of these participants were being born) and compared it to 6,200 elderly individuals in Northern California. During 1928, infant mortality rates were much higher for African Americans versus White births (277 per 1,000 African American live births, versus 127 per 1,000 White live births). Gilsanz spoke with the Alzheimer’s Association about his research:
“This is the first study of place of birth and long-term dementia risk. African Americans born around 1928 were likely exposed to harsher early life conditions that may have increased their risk of dementia later in life. Our findings suggest that differences in early life conditions may contribute to racial inequalities in dementia rate, and they point to growing evidence that early life conditions contribute to dementia risk in late life.”
The Neighborhood Connection
Location also played a major role in the rise of dementia occurrences, according to this study. Neighborhoods, in general, can have a major effect on life expectancy and quality of life. Unstable housing can cause stress, while dilapidated homes can expose people to allergens, diseases, and pests. Additionally, neighborhoods that are traditionally situated in poorer areas of town are less likely to have parks, libraries, fully funded schools, or recreation centers. All of these factors can lead to increased cases of depression, anxiety, or prolonged exposure to stress in adolescence, known as “toxic stress.”
Researcher Amy Kind, MD, PhD, with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, contributed her detailed research on the physical effects of living in a disadvantaged neighborhood to the Alzheimer’s Association’s July 2017 release. Through her study, she found that living in disadvantaged neighborhoods (she studied 50 million neighborhoods overall in the US and Puerto Rico) proved remarkably worse cognitive performance, even after accounting for age and education. She stated:
“This study provides evidence to suggest that living in a neighborhood challenged by poverty, low education, unemployment, and/or substandard housing may increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and may account for some of the observed differences in Alzheimer’s disease risk among people of different racial backgrounds and income levels.”
What Does This Information Mean for You?
All of this information may come across as very intimidating. Suggesting stress can lead to dementia will cause most people to stress about stressing in the first place! But you don’t have to psych yourself out. Understand that this information can be used to help build treatment centers in the right areas, or it could open up the doors for more dementia-focused intervention to prevent it from happening to future generations.
If you worry that your childhood might have set you off on a path to dementia or Alzheimer’s, know that there are options to help you decrease your chances of developing these conditions. Most commonly, it is suggested to stay moderately active throughout your life — well into your retirement years — to help you combat the early stages of dementia. Exercising your body also can help you exercise your mind by honing your cognitive abilities.
Additionally, mental stimulation can play a major role in keeping dementia at bay. This can include playing an instrument, learning something new, or simply watching a new documentary. The more you can expand your mind, the better it will be at fighting off memory loss.
Other factors that can help include: getting a full night’s rest, managing your daily stress in the present, staying socially engaged with other people, and eating a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals.
This study may reveal some damning evidence, but it will be used to further help researchers narrow down the root causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Already, Congress has approved increased funding for Alzheimer’s research, and the Alzheimer’s Association is lobbying to ensure that further funding is met and research is conducted to help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s in future generations.
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