There are currently 5.3 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Worldwide there are 44 million people living with Alzheimer’s. It is projected that in the next 20 years Alzheimer’s will affect one in four Americans. This means it will rival obesity and diabetes for the top spot in relation to common medical problems Americans suffer. It is the only cause of death in the top 10 that cannot be either prevented, cured or slowed.

The exact causes of Alzheimer’s are not fully understood. The main causes are thought to be genetic – your family history, lifestyle – stress, smoking, drinking and eating habits and environmental factors – pesticides, food additives and air pollution. Less than 5% of the time, Alzheimer’s is caused by specific genetic changes that nearly guarantee a person will develop the disease. This is called familial Alzheimer’s disease. Given the many and varied causes of the disease, finding a cure has proven elusive.

With so many causal factors under the direct control of the person it has become easier to lessen your chances of getting Alzheimer’s. But there are some that are out of your control. Stress is one of them.

Dr Edgardo Reich, from the Department of Neurology, University of Buenos presented evidence to suggest that stress is one of the triggers for Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Reich says “Stress, according to our findings, is probably a trigger for initial symptoms of dementia. Though I rule out stress as mono-causal in dementia, research is solidifying the evidence that stress can trigger a degenerative process in the brain and precipitate dysfunction in the neuroendocrine and immune system.”

The study found that 72% of all Alzheimer’s patients had suffered severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis. The causes of the stress included a bereavement, experiencing violence and financial problems.

Stress can wreak havoc on the mind and body. There is a lot of research that suggests stress could be linked to the onset of many diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Sheldon Cohen, University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University found a link between chronic stress and the body’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response. The inflammatory response is how the body reacts to harmful stimuli that can invade our body such as bacteria and viruses. It is how the body protects itself. Obviously if the body’s ability to repair itself is impaired, it more open to disease.

When we are stressed our body produces cortisol to help us to fight or flee the stressful event. Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen and your blood flow increases. Short term this is beneficial, but in the long term your immune system gets less sensitive to cortisol which can heighten the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.

Dr. Sonia Lupien at McGill University in Montreal conducted a study in which older adults with continuously high levels of cortisol performed worse on memory tests than those with low to moderate levels of the stress hormone and, on average, have a 14% smaller hippo-campus. As the hippo-campus degenerates, it becomes unable to fulfill its function of signaling the adrenal gland to stop secreting cortisol when a crisis is over. A downward spiral ensues as cortisol levels continue to climb, intensifying damage to the hippo-campus, and further weakening its ability to shut down cortisol production.

One of the first noticeable symptoms of early stage Alzheimer’s is forgetfulness. But over time Alzheimer’s works towards robbing more and more of the memory, especially the most recent memories. The rate at which the forgetfulness worsens is different for each person.

The Mayo Clinic identifies “five stages associated with Alzheimer’s disease: preclinical Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, mild dementia due to Alzheimer’s, moderate dementia due to Alzheimer’s and severe dementia due to Alzheimer’s.”

Recognizing these stages helps people plan for what is in store as the disease progresses. It is also important as it helps families understand what is actually happening to the sufferer’s mind.

Stress can be a major factor in triggering Alzheimer’s but there are so many things you can do to mitigate the onset of Alzheimer’s. Having a stress management plan that includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep is one of the best methods of protecting yourself from stress and its deleterious effects.

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