Stressful life experience can 'age your brain', research suggests

We all know stress isn’t good for us, but according to new research it can actually age your brain.

Experts led by a team from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in the US found that stressful life experiences can age the brain by several years, with even one major stressful event early in life potentially having an impact on later brain health.

The team examined data for 1,320 people who reported stressful experiences over their lifetime and underwent tests in areas such as thinking and memory.

The people were aged 58 on average and included 1,232 whites and 82 African Americans, with stressful life experiences including things such as losing a job, a child’s death, divorce or growing up with a parent who abused alcohol or drugs.

A series of neuropsychological tests examined several areas including four memory scores – immediate memory, verbal learning and memory, visual learning and memory and story recall. The results showed that a larger number of stressful events was linked to poorer cognitive function in later life.

Stress – stressful experiences included things such as losing a job, a child’s death, divorce or growing up with a parent who abused alcohol or drugs (Picture: PA)

And when looking specifically at African Americans, the team found they experienced more than 60% more stressful events than white people during their lifetimes.

Researchers said that in African Americans each stressful experience was equivalent to roughly four years of cognitive ageing.

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The study was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London.

Dr Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “The stressful events that the researchers were focusing on were a large variety … the death of a parent, abuse, loss of a job, loss of a home… poverty, living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, divorce.”

Even a change of school could be regarded as a stressful life event for some children, she said.

Research – experts found that stressful experiences earlier in life can affect cognitive function later on (Picture: Getty)

Dr Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it’s no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life.

“However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia. Studying the role of stress is complex. It is hard to separate from other conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are also thought to contribute towards dementia risk.

“However, the findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events.

He said it was important to establish the role that stress and stressful life events play, adding:  “To unravel this, more research is needed over a longer time scale. If you are experiencing stress or worried about your health, it’s important to visit your GP.”

(Top picture: Getty)