How Stress Impacts Older Adults with Alzheimer’s

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Scientists have known the effects of stress on the human body for years. However, recently a group of researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) were determined to learn how stress affects the brain. The group was particularly interested in the effects stress had on the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Up to five million adults in the United States are diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s, a number that could more than double in the next three decades. 

Research is ongoing to better understand the mechanisms involved in the disease process, which may lead to better treatments. The UCI study indicates that stress management and restricting some medications can prevent Alzheimer’s from progressing. 

Impact of Stress

The scientists used nine-month-old laboratory mice that were genetically altered to develop brain lesions similar to the abnormalities found in people with Alzheimer’s. Daily for seven days, the mice received injections of the steroid known as dexamethasone, a substance not unlike the cortisol hormone released when humans experience stress. By the end of the week, the mice exhibited a 60 percent increase in the number of beta-amyloid protein fragments in their brains. The accumulation of fragments clumped together and created plaques. An increase in the tangle-forming tau proteins was also found. 

Together, the proteins disrupt normal neuron formation and function, which interferes with normal communication between the cells. Alzheimer’s symptoms then appear. The researchers were amazed at how fast stress affected the brain. Scientists were already aware people with Alzheimer’s have abnormally high cortisol levels during the early stages of the disease. 

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Stress Stimulates Alzheimer’s

The study continued with the testing of younger mice. The animals were genetically modified but had not yet developed the telltale lesions. The researchers did not expect to see the same physiological effects caused by the steroid in four-month-old mice. However, at the end of one week, the young mice also exhibited a high amount of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in their brains. The scientists theorized stress might be a major factor in stimulating the development of Alzheimer’s in individuals genetically predisposed to the disorder.


The final phase of the study involved inoculating 13-month-old mice that exhibited a number of plaque and tangle lesions. Again, after steroid injections, the brains of the mice demonstrated a significant increase in lesions. 

Although the scientists expected to find some brain changes, the disease progression that took place in such a short time was unexpected. The steroid injections also initiated a vicious cycle of destruction. As more proteins appeared secondary to the medication, the bodies of the mice produced stress hormones, which further increased the number of lesions. 

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Danger to Humans

The findings shed some light into the future treatment of humans with Alzheimer’s. Several medications prescribed for older adults often contain glucocorticoids. If an older adult is predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s, these medications combined with environmental stressors more than likely would trigger the disease process or become responsible for rapidly progressing the disorder.

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