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The mind-altering effects of stress

17 August, 2017

These are stressful times

The effect on our mental and physical well-being from life events such as divorce, a death in the family, money worries, dysfunctional relationships and job pressures are all well researched. Less well studied – though maybe someone should – are the geographical and sociopolitical stresses we all face: climate change certainly, but also increasingly wide gaps between the haves and have-nots, daily newspapers full of hatred and violence and leaders who act more like playground bullies.

At the recent Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, a series of papers were presented which gave some indication of the brain damage – literally – that is caused by all this stress and how it can begin early and stay with you over a lifetime.

In one study presented, researchers in Wisconsin found that a single major stressful event in early life is equal to four years of cognitive aging. African Americans were most at risk and on average, they experience over 60% more early life stress and stressful in their neighbourhoods and communities than non-Hispanic Whites over their lifetimes.

Sick neighbourhoods

We don’t often think of neighbourhood stress as an issue, but neighbourhoods disadvantaged by poverty, low education, unemployment, and/or substandard housing often make it harder to access healthy foods, to exercise, and to escape environmental toxins. All these and more impact health. It is known that living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood increases risk of diabetes, cancer, and early death – and that moving to less disadvantaged settings improves health.

A further 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% increased risk of dementia compared to African Americans not from those states, and 80% increased risk compared to Whites not from those states.

Other researchers found that the oldest-old African Americans and Latinos had the highest incidence of Alzheimer’s compared to Asian Americans and Whites.

All these studies add weight to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the risks for dementia, as is the case for so many other illnesses – from childhood diseases, to the flu to heart disease – have a socioeconomic component that we ignore at our peril.

It’s hard to know which part of this to address first. Is it a refusal to accept that we live in a racially diverse world where more must be done to address inequality and quality of life issues? Or is it our still relatively poor grasp of how deeply stress influences health?

A body blow

Psychological stress is very real to the body. As noted in an article we published this week stress wreaks havoc on almost every body system. It suppresses immunity, increases inflammation, affects the musculoskeletal and hormonal systems, alters the function of our respiratory and digestive systems, keeps us from sleeping and drives us to do things we know are bad for us like smoking, drinking and overeating.

It also becomes a vicious cycle because the more physically ill you are the more psychological stress you will be under.

The Wisconsin researchers found that early life stressors can still be affecting the mind at age 90, so this is long term damage on a scale we have not really explored before.

Beyond medical solutions

The answer to creating a healthier society goes far beyond just medical solutions.

City planners and our leaders at local and national level need to wake up and get involved in bigger solutions, because evidence shows that how we build and organise our cities, how we deal with poverty and inequality, and environmental threats like climate change is a public health issue.

Walkable neighbourhoods, for instance, have the lowest incidence of obesity, overweight and diabetes. Other evidence suggests that being able to trust your neighbours also has a positive effect on health. On the other side of the coin, urban light pollution can disrupt our sleep – as can air pollution – and the resulting stress and exhaustion is linked to poorer immunity and inflammation.

As our population ages and our stress levels rise we have to ask: what kind of society are we creating for ourselves and our kids?

What is clear is that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment is rising, creating a burden not just on our health systems but on families caring for their loved ones. It is highly conceivable that the stress of caring for someone who has dementia can in itself become a risk factor for dementia later in the carer’s life.

We urgently need to break the cycle.


Pat Thomas, Editor