A new scientific review paper warns that people must find ways to reduce chronic stress and anxiety in their lives or they could be increasing their risk for developing depression and even dementia in later life.
The review was led by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences and examined the areas of the brain that are effected by chronic anxiety, stress and fear in both animal and human studies that have already been published. The authors concluded that there is an ‘extensive overlap’ of the neuro-circuitry in the brain in all three conditions, which could explain the link between chronic stress and the development of neuropsychiatric disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
The paper has been posted online this month in the journal ‘Current Opinion in Psychiatry’.
Experiencing fear, stress and anxiety occasionally is, of course, a completely normal part of life. We’ve all had those feelings at times throughout our lives, such as before a job interview or an exam. But these moments should be temporary. When those acute emotional reactions become chronic, they can massively interfere with the activities of daily life like work, school and relationships. Chronic stress is an uncontrolled state caused by the extended activation of the normal biological response to stress. This can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems, which leads to degeneration of the brain’s hippocampus (vital for spatial navigation and long term memory).
Dr. Linda Mah, who is the lead author of the review said, “Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.”
The review concluded on a hopeful note by suggesting that stress induced damage to the hippocampus and PFC is not completely irreversible. Physical activity and anti-depressant treatment have both been found to increase neural regeneration. In the future, more work is needed to discover whether individuals could do more to reduce their stress and decrease their risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders. Solutions might include cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness training and exercise.
With further development, this breakthrough in dementia research has the potential to be really exciting. The Alzheimer’s Society is the leading UK organisation in the fight against dementia. Each year they run a Dementia Awareness Week. Thousands of people across the UK take part in fundraising events annually. To date, the emphasis has been on campaigns to help support people living with dementia. But following this new research review, if a campaign could be included for next year to raise awareness about what steps we can take to possibly prevent the condition altogether, we could be taking our first very real step towards a world where dementia no longer exists.