UK researchers are being funded by the Alzheimer’s Society to study if prolonged stress can increase an individual’s risk for Alzheimer’s.
Clive Holmes, a professor of biological psychiatry at the University of Southampton, is lead investigator for the stress study.
“All of us go through stressful events,” he said. “We are looking to understand how these may become a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s.
“This is the first stage in developing ways in which to intervene with psychological or drug-based treatments to fight the disease.”
Investigators hope to prove that more effective coping methods for dealing with stress, and a greater understanding of its biological impact, may reduce the growing Alzheimer’s burden.
The 18-month study will involve monitoring 140 people, aged 50 and over, with mild cognitive impairment. The participants will be assessed for levels of stress and assessed for any progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.
Experts say that about 60 per cent of people with mild cognitive impairment go on to develop Alzheimer’s.
Holmes says the progression from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown Alzheimer’s is often different among individuals. One factor being increasingly implicated in the process is chronic stress.
Examples of stress could include a single negative event, such as a prolonged illness, injury or a major operation.
If stress is indeed converting people from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s, then intervention to mitigate stress may be helpful in slowing or even halting the process.
“We are looking at two aspects of stress relief – physical and psychological – and the body’s response to that experience. Something such as bereavement or a traumatic experience – possibly even moving home – is also a potential factor,” Homes said.
Alzheimer’s Society research manager Anne Corbett said: “The study will look at the role chronic stress plays in the progression from mild thinking and memory problems – Mild Cognitive Impairment – to Alzheimer’s disease.
“We feel this is a really important area of research that needs more attention. The results could offer clues to new treatments or better ways of managing the condition. It will also be valuable to understand how different ways of coping with stressful life events could influence the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.”
Study participants will be compared to a control group of 70 people without memory problems. All the people taking part will be asked to complete cognitive tests in order to track their cognitive health.
Questionnaires will assess their personality type, style of coping with stressful events and their perceived level of social support and mood.
The process will be repeated after 18 months to measure any conversion from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. Stressful life events will also be recorded.
Biological markers of stress obtained from blood and saliva samples will be measured every six months. Blood samples will measure immune function and the saliva samples will track levels of cortisol, which is released by the body in response to chronic stress.
A number of illnesses are known to develop earlier or are made worse by chronic stress, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis. But until now, minimal research has been performed on the effect of stress among people with cognitive impairment and if stress can influence the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Source: University of Southhampton