How Chronic Stress Contributes To Risk Of Alzheimer’s

Nov 26, 2019

November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month – did you know that chronic stress can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia? In this report, KVCR speaks to two Loma Linda researchers who say chronic stress is bad for both the body and the brain. 

In 2018, Americans were among the most stressed-out people in the world according to Gallup Global Emotions report.

Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai are the co-directors of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s program at Loma Linda University Health. They’ve spent years researching how stress damages the brain and causes memory loss.

Dean Sherzai explains.

Dean Sherzai: “Chronic stress is one of the most important factors when it comes to affecting the brain on a short-term basis and long-term basis. It does it in two ways: direct path, which means that the neurotransmitter level, which means it affects the neuro-transmitters like dopamine and serotonin, it puts them, it throws them off, what it does is it actually affects the equilibrium state of those chemicals. So the person that's supposed to have a certain pattern of release of chemicals and then with stress it directly affects the release of those chemicals, be it emotional or otherwise. The indirect pathway is even more interesting. What it does is, how you interpret stress as good or bad actually sends a different message to the hypothalamus and then hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary which is the master gland. And pituitary then releases the cortisol, adrenaline, insulin, thyroid, your growth hormones, and affects every system of your body through the pituitary. And if it's a bad, interpreted as bad stress, it actually releases increased amounts of cortisol and adrenaline which affects the body profoundly, almost as if it feels like it's under attack. And it also affects the thyroid and insulin levels, to think that it is under attack.”

But there’s also good stress that helps the brain, according to Ayesha Sherzai.

Ayesha Sherzai: “Positive stress is usually created with activities that are related to our joy and our pleasure. Our goals in life. And it can be anything. It could be, probably one of the most challenging and complex activities but if your heart is into it, and if you are developing that particularly and if it's aligned with your mission and vision in life, that's good stress and that is the best form of creating the best environment for our brains to grow and thrive. Our brain cells have the capacity to make connections. Each brain cell has the capacity to make as few as two connections or as many as 30,000 connections. Those connections are made during complex and challenging activities that are related to our joy. Just like Dean was saying, you know, our brain interprets what's joyful and what is stressful. And so exposing ourselves to good stress or activities that we absolutely love is actually great for the brain.”

Negative, chronic stress contributes to risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, according to Dean Sherzai.

Dean Sherzai: “Chronic stress is going to affect it in several ways. One is neurotransmitters, it affects the neurotransmitters, you get anxiety, you get depression, and all of those things over time. Through neurotransmitters and through what happens is where you actually build up ways to put you at risk for developing Alzheimer's. Indirectly, as you have increased cortisol levels, increased adrenaline levels, increased inflammation - because all of those things also affect inflammation - the byproduct of all of those hormones and chemicals and especially inflammation and insulin resistance, remember that's also affected through stress, it over time comes back and puts the brain under the kind of stress that degrades the brain, that breaks it down. So long-term stress that is not driven by your purpose creates inflammation and insulin resistance, which ultimately breaks down the brain.”

Ayesha Sherzai says some effective ways to manage stress are to identify our stressors and to try not to multi-task.

Ayesha Sherzai: “I think the first step is to identify our stressors and identify whether it's a good stressor or bad stress. And to do this on a regular basis because based on our lifestyle, based on our resources, any good stress can become bad stress right away. It has to be a step-wise process of identifying it. I think that's one of the first things someone can do. I think the focus should be on prioritizing our tasks, we live in a world where there are so many stimuli, there are so many items, and we have to make sure that we are able to focus on each and every one of them, and get rid of the ones that are not important and they are just hindrances to our best brain capacity and our best versions of ourselves. So you know multi-tasking comes in when there's just so much going on. And trying to focus on one thing at a time makes perfect sense and we're able to 100 percent dedicate our minds and our brain capacity to one task at a time, get it done then start with the other one.”