New research has discovered that stress increases the likelihood that elderly people will develop mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

In a new study, scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System in New York found that highly stressed people were more than twice as likely to become cognitively impaired than those who were not.

Because stress is treatable, the study’s findings suggest that detecting and treating stress in older people might help delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, the researchers noted in the study, which was published in Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders.

Each year, about 470,000 Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia. Many of them first experienced mild cognitive impairment, a pre-dementia condition that significantly increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

For the new study, scientists looked at the connection between chronic stress and amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), the most common type of MCI, which is primarily characterized by memory loss.

“Our study provides strong evidence that perceived stress increases the likelihood that an older person will develop aMCI,” said Richard Lipton, M.D., senior author of the study, vice chair of neurology at Einstein and Montefiore.

“Fortunately, perceived stress is a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, making it a potential target for treatment.”

“Perceived stress reflects the daily hassles we all experience, as well as the way we appraise and cope with these events,” said the study’s first author, Mindy Katz, M.P.H., a senior associate in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology at Einstein.

“Perceived stress can be altered by mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive-behavioral therapies and stress-reducing drugs. These interventions may postpone or even prevent an individual’s cognitive decline.”

The researchers studied data collected from 507 people enrolled in the Einstein Aging Study (EAS). Since 1993, the EAS has recruited adults 70 and over who live in Bronx County, N.Y.

Participants undergo annual assessments that include clinical evaluations, a neuropsychological battery of tests, psychosocial measures, medical history, assessments of daily activities, and reports — by the participants and those close to them — of memory and other cognitive complaints.

Starting in 2005, the EAS began assessing stress using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). This 14-item measure of psychological stress was designed to be sensitive to chronic stress due to ongoing life circumstances, possible future events, and other causes  perceived over the previous month. PSS scores range from zero to 56, with higher scores indicating greater perceived stress, the researchers explained.

The diagnosis of aMCI was based on standard clinical criteria, including the results of recall tests and reports of forgetfulness from the participants or from others.

All 507 enrollees were free of aMCI or dementia at their initial PSS assessment and subsequently underwent at least one annual follow-up evaluation. They were followed for an average of 3.6 years.

During the study, 71 of the 507 participants were diagnosed with aMCI. The greater the participants’ stress level, the greater their risk for developing aMCI, according to the researchers.

For every five point increase in their PSS scores, their risk of developing aMCI increased by 30 percent.

Similar results were obtained when participants were divided into five groups based on their PSS scores. Participants in the highest-stress group were nearly 2.5 times more likely to develop aMCI than were people in the remaining four groups combined.

When comparing the two groups, participants in the high-stress group were more likely to be female and have less education and higher levels of depression, the researchers added.

Source: Albert Einstein College of Medicine