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Study links chronic stress in older adults to increased risk of mild cognitive impairment

Older adults with high levels of chronic stress may be more likely to develop amnestic mild cognitive impairment, a recent study found.

Amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) is a form of cognitive decline marked by memory problems. It is often a precursor to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York studied 507 people ages 70 and over who lived in Bronx County, New York. None of the study subjects had cognitive impairment when the study started, and all were taking part in a larger study called the Einstein Aging Study. Each participant’s stress levels were measured using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), which gauges psychological stress including chronic or ongoing stress.

The participants were followed for an average of 3.6 years. By the end of that time, 71 people had developed aMCI. The researchers found a significant relationship between high stress levels and likelihood of developing aMCI. Those whose PSS stress scores were in the highest 20 per cent had 2.5 times the aMCI risk compared to those with the lower 80 per cent of scores. Risk of developing aMCI increased by 30% for each five-point increase in score on the PSS (which has a maximum score of 56).

People with the highest stress scores were more likely to be women, to have lower education levels, and to be depressed.

The researchers looked at both depression and APOE gene status to see if they affected the relationship between stress and aMCI. Depression has been identified as a risk factor for cognitive decline. People who carry a specific type of the APOE gene have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the researchers found that chronic stress increased the risk of aMCI independently of these two factors.

The study authors note that because stress is modifiable, and high stress levels can be treated, addressing this risk factor in older people may provide an opportunity to help prevent aMCI and perhaps dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. They suggest measures such as cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and medications to help reduce stress and the associated risk of cognitive decline.

The study was published online in the journal Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders on Dec. 11, 2015.


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital