Stressful life experiences can age the brain, research shows

Stressful life experiences can age the brain by several years and potentially heighten the risk of dementia, the Guardian has reported.

According to Wisconsin University’s school of medicine and public health, which published the study, just one major stressful event early in life may have an impact on later brain health.

The research looked at the data of 1,320 people who reported to have one or more stressful experience over their lifetime.

The quantity of experiences was compared against test scores in cognitive aptitudes, such as immediate memory, verbal memory, visual memory, and story recall.

The researchers classified a “stressful experience” as events such as losing a job, the death of a child, divorce, or growing up with a parent who abused alcohol or drugs.

The results showed that each stressful experience was the equivalent of losing approximately four years of cognitive health.

Commenting on the study, Dr Maria Carrillo, the chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “The stressful events that the researchers were focusing on were a large variety … the death of a parent, abuse, loss of a job, loss of a home … poverty, living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, divorce.” She said that even a change of school could be regarded as a stressful life event for some children.”

Dr Doug Brown, the director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, added: “We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it’s no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life. However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia.

“Studying the role of stress is complex. It is hard to separate from other conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are also thought to contribute towards dementia risk.

“However, the findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events. As we improve our understanding of risk factors for dementia, it is increasingly important to establish the role that stress and stressful life events play.”