Photo: Mauricio Alejo
If emotional stress could be measured on the Richter scale, mine would be hovering around 9.0—and it's been that way since the day my husband of 23 years announced he wanted a divorce. I was blindsided by the news; if there had been warning signs, I'd missed them completely. A year and a half later, as we signed the divorce papers, I was still in shock.

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?
Photo: Mauricio Alejo
To find out, I got in touch with Robert Sapolsky, PhD, a neuroscientist at Stanford and the author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, which explores the effects of long-term stress on the body and brain. Sapolsky explained that when we're stressed, two areas of the brain crucial to learning and memory, the hippocampus and frontal cortex, are flooded with hormones called glucocorticoids, which help our body prioritize what's most important in a crisis. These hormones maximize our strength and energy—in case we need to flee a predator, for example—while temporarily shutting down less essential functions, such as maintaining connections between neurons in our brain. (You don't want to spend precious mental energy consolidating memories when you're trying to outrun a saber-toothed tiger.) But chronic stress has us releasing glucocorticoids nonstop. "As a result, the hippocampus and frontal cortex continually back-burner their housekeeping duties of cleaning up connections between neurons," says Sapolsky. Over time, that can cause these neurons to function poorly, potentially leaving us vulnerable to cognitive decline.

The big question—and one Rajita Sinha, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology and director of the Yale Stress Center, gets a lot—is whether the brain can bounce back after periods of chronic stress. "Everyone wants to know if they can recover from the damage," says Sinha. "And actually, we think they can, but the extent to which neurons can be repaired is still not clear. We've learned that the brain is very dynamic in the way it can restore itself after stress." So while the neurons I may have damaged during my months of fretting might be damaged for good, it's possible that once the glucocorticoid flood subsides, the brain may begin creating new neural pathways and potentially even new neurons. (It's like taking a detour on a highway: You eventually get to the same place but by a different route.)

The key to getting back in tip-top neurological shape is, forgive the pun, a no-brainer. Research indicates that if we make a conscious effort to calm down after a traumatic event with a range of stress reduction techniques—cognitive-behavioral therapy, regular exercise, strong social support and mindfulness activities like yoga and meditation—we may help prevent further neural damage.

While the research on stress reduction and dementia is relatively new, some animal studies and a few small human trials have shown that certain strategies for calming down can help increase the number of the neurons and neural connections that make up gray matter. A Harvard study found that among a group of adults between ages 25 and 55, those who meditated and practiced yoga for about three hours per week over the course of eight weeks showed significant increases in gray matter of the left hippocampus, which helps facilitate our ability to store information and recall it later.

It's impossible to predict whether I'll dodge the Alzheimer's bullet, of course, but I'm glad to know that all my downward dogs, triangle poses and deep breaths are making my neurons happy. So I'll keep it up, look for other ways to soothe my mind and try to trust that somehow everything—including my neurons—will be okay.

Laura Hilgers is a writer in Marin County, California.


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