So when I tuned in to NPR several months ago while driving home from my divorce attorney's office, the last thing I wanted to hear about was a study linking midlife stress to dementia. The researchers had tracked 800 women in Gothenburg, Sweden, from 1968 to 2005, looking at how stress affected their health pre- and postmenopause. Over the course of the study, they uncovered a surprising finding: The women who reported major stressors—such as divorce, the death of a spouse, or a demotion or job loss—between ages 38 and 54 had a 21 percent increased risk of Alzheimer's and a 15 percent increased risk of developing any kind of dementia. The more stressors, the higher the risk.
My first thought was, They have stress in Sweden?
My second thought: Oh, great. My marriage blows up, and now I have to worry about losing my mind?
My third thought: At least I'll be in good company.
The fact is, I can't name a single person who hasn't been through something awful in midlife. Among my friends, several have weathered ugly divorces or serious marital troubles, others are dealing with their spouse's or children's addiction issues, and a few have lost their jobs. Even though the study focused specifically on middle age, stress at any stage of life may impact our Alzheimer's risk, says Maria Norton, PhD, an associate professor at Utah State and one of the study's authors. And women might not be the only ones affected: Early data from a 19-year study on men and women suggests that the link between stress and dementia may be similar for both sexes. Does this mean that our brains take a hit with every major life shakeup?