Is there a link between stress and dementia?


Older woman smiling

Whilst researching the effects of stress on the body and mind for my reflexology practice, I came across several references to a connection between stress and the development of dementia. This awful disease touches so many families, my own included, and this discovery prompted me to find out more.


Dementia is a term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders of which Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common types. Symptoms include memory loss, language problems and unpredictable behaviour. Some may develop more than one type of dementia and the risk increases with age; the majority being over 65 although it can also affect younger age groups. There are many factors that may increase the risk of developing dementia including genetic make-up and certain health issues, but recent scientific research points to the possibility that stress could play a role in dementia development. Studies in animals have shown that the toxic protein that forms plaques in the brain, central to Alzheimer’s disease, increased on exposure to acute and chronic stress. However, research has yet to establish whether the same is apparent in humans.


Stress activates regions of the brain known as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA), to stimulate the production of the hormones, cortisol and adrenalin. This has multiple effects on both physical and mental health, which I have described in more detail in my previous blog (How does reflexology help with stress?). Long term, chronic stress can have negative consequences, affecting the immune system and our ability to heal. It can make you more prone to depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and potentially affect cognition leading to early-stage dementia. Having chronic stress does not necessarily cause dementia but is one factor among many that may play a role in its progression. For someone with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, facing mortality will naturally involve high stress levels affecting the ability to cope and maintain a positive outlook on life. This added stress can also exacerbate symptoms and drive the progression of the disease.


Even though science cannot, as yet, provide firm answers to the question of a link between stress and dementia, it is clear that people with the disease show real improvement when their stress levels are reduced. Engaging in activities such as social interaction, music and art have all been proven to help with symptoms and quality of life. Fortunately, stress is one of the factors related to brain health that can be addressed at any age.


Yoga meditation class for all ages

5 effective ways to relieve stress

  • Make time in your day for relaxation

  • Try regular holistic therapy such as reflexology

  • Engage in a form of meditation

  • Improve your sleep habits

  • Laugh more often

You may have other ideas on what methods of stress relief work for you; it’s just a case of making time for your wellbeing and selfcare. To conclude; whether or not science proves a stress/dementia connection in the future; with a few enjoyable changes, we can all help ourselves today and ahead into our tomorrows.

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