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Stress Hormones And Their Relations To Alzheimer’s Disease

Nobody wants to grow old. And of all the ailments and diseases that we might have to suffer as we age, Alzheimer’s stands at the very top of the most hated list. Absolutely nobody wants Alzheimer’s for themselves or their loved ones. It’s hard to watch parents who are held in high regard lose their wit and their wisdom, all thanks to a disease.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive and degenerative disease that impacts the brain. People with Alzheimer’s are commonly known to “forget things” and indeed this is usually one of the first warning signs of Alzheimer’s. However it isn’t the only one and it certainly isn’t the worst.

The Alzheimer’s patient’s forgetfulness can be attributed to the degeneration of brain cells and the connections between them. However, as you can imagine, this results in impairment – and eventually loss – of mental function. As the disease progresses, so does the impairment of mental function.

Because science is clueless about its causes, most people don’t really know what to do to avoid Alzheimer’s. However, studies have usually found a higher correlation with obesity and Alzheimer’s, smoking and Alzheimer’s and an overall unhealthy lifestyle and Alzheimer’s. And of late, there is increasing evidence that connects the stress hormone, cortisol, with Alzheimer’s.

Did that just stress you out?

A vicious cycle 

That’s indeed the bigger problem – chicken and egg syndrome. Stress causes Alzheimer’s and that fact stresses a lot of people out. Going further, people with Alzheimer’s get stressed because well, they suddenly come face to face with their own mortality (and powerlessness over the disease) and they worry about how dementia will ruin their lives and inconvenience their loved ones. Some seniors are also not fans of having people around, and needing a caregiver in the first place is a source of great stress.

So yes, keeping stress levels of an Alzheimer’s patient low is very essential to preventing accelerated progression of the disease. 

The more stressed they get, the higher their chances of quicker degeneration.

Cortisol is a widely impactful criminal

Like the cartels we see on TV that smuggle drugs and people and illegal weapons, cortisol has an increasingly long rap sheet. It has been linked to diabetes and hypertension; heart disease and even cancer. Many people today are very painfully aware of how stress – or more specifically cortisol – affects immunity because they tend to fall sick during periods of high stress.

New studies have also, similarly, linked stress to the development of Alzheimer’s.

Scientists call it the impact of stress on “biological pathways” and feel like stress might affect the brain’s immunity too.

It’s actually not that hard a connection to draw. The chronically stressed brain – after about 60 years hard at work – becomes like a computer or smartphone completely out of RAM.

The science of the stress-Alzheimer’s marriage

There’s actually two parts to why Alzheimer’s is being linked to stress. The stress hormone, cortisol, our criminal in the spotlight for this post, and an overworked stress response mechanism.

First things first. Let’s learn about a part of our anatomy we didn’t know about. We have what is known as a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This axis – also known as a pathway – controls a person’s responses to stressful situations. Long term stress has an effect on this pathway and this results in an irregular response and disruption in the brain’s processes. This puts the patient at risk for neurodegeneration.

And then of course there’s cortisol, which is found in higher levels in people suffering from Alzheimer’s.

In fact, cortisol is being considered as the very reason for the neurodegeneration occuring in the brain in the first place. Scientists are still working on delivering concrete proof, but it does make sense, doesn’t it? By the brain constantly being stressed, and therefore in crisis mode, and therefore in overdrive, you can imagine it just crashing one fine day.

Cortisol and neurodegeneration could be partners in crime

Scientists are also working to find out if cortisol and neurodegeneration feed off each other. They are yet to find any conclusive evidence of this but there are insinuations that stressed individuals will have a lower ability to cope with the Alzheimer’s long list of challenges

How to reduce stress (without quitting your job, spouse, kids and traffic) 

Let’s face it. A lot of us can’t just get up and leave behind our stressful lives to spend the rest of our days keeping Alzheimer’s at bay breathing deeply on a beach or a mountain top or under a tree. 

If you are still young or middle aged or even a senior who doesn’t have Alzheimer’syou can reduce your chances by exercising daily, eating right, sleeping a healthy amount at the right time and by developing tools to fight stress. And another thing: laugh. Get your dose of laughter on a daily basis. Real laughter. The kind you feel in your heart. 

If you are caring for someone who already has Alzheimer’s, ensure that they practice safe forms of exercise within what is considered safe for their stage of Alzheimer’s and try to ensure a healthy sleep schedule. Help them avoid stress by comforting and reassuring them. Make time to have fun with them and yes, use humour to get a few laughs out of them too (at least until the point they can understand you – keep your humour light and simple).

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