Stress is an unavoidable part of everyone’s life. It can come in smaller forms – like a school exam or a deadline at work – and also larger more lasting ways – like a personal tragedy.

A new American research suggests that these larger stressful life events, such as the death of a child, divorce or being fired, can age the brain by at least four years.

To better understand brain health researchers looked at performance in memory and thinking of 1,300 people in their fifties.

Despite the findings being presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, the study didn’t specifically look at the risk of dementia as experts said that there are many other additional factors to consider.

And even though the research was unable to establish a direct link between stress and dementia, it did manage to conclude that stressful experiences have a significant impact on brain function which could potentially lead to dementia in the future.

The idea that the brain “ages” is connected to an increase in inflammation – a theory that is currently being tested at the University of Southampton.

Chronic inflammation can be linked to an overwhelming majority of serious medical conditions – hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and most cancers.

A separate study at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, looked more closely at memory tests within different ethnic groups.

Stressful experiences across all groups included educational difficulties, financial insecurity, serious health problems and psychological trauma.

However, it was the ethnic groups that tended to live in poorer neighbourhoods – additional stressors of finances and safety – that scored poorer results in the memory tests.

There were many other studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, a number of which pointed to the growing evidence of the connection between stress, where people live and an individual’s risk of developing dementia.

Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development for Alzheimer’s Society, said that “studying the role of stress is complex”.

“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.”  

“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. To unravel this, more research is needed over a longer time scale. If you are experiencing stress or worried about your health, it’s important to visit your GP.”

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