A stressful experience such as losing a loved one, getting divorced or being fired can age the brain by up to four years, scientists say.
They have identified 27 life events that are so damaging to the brain that even one can age it prematurely, potentially leading to diseases such as Alzheimer’s later in life.
The damage can begin in childhood when problems such as having to repeat a year at school or being expelled were found to be significant stressful events.
Scientists have identified 27 life events that are so damaging to the brain that even one can age it prematurely, potentially leading to diseases such as Alzheimer’s later in life
Children whose parents struggled to find work or who had drug or alcohol problems also experienced damaging stress.
From the teenage years into adulthood, experiencing parental divorce, the death of a parent, sibling or child, infidelity by a spouse and serious conflict with the in-laws were all considered highly stressful. Money problems, including bankruptcy or being fired, and losing a home to fire or flood were also damaging.
Scientists believe severe stress causes inflammation of the brain, which could make it more vulnerable to problems such as dementia in the long term. Stressful events could also lead to depression, which puts people at higher risk of dementia.
Dr Maria Carrillo, of the US Alzheimer’s Association, said in addition to the 27 events listed, experiences such as changing schools as a child or a fraught house purchase could be traumatic enough to cause damage.
She added: ‘The stressful events were throughout the lifespan – a variety of different things that you can imagine would be impactful and stressful. Dementia and brain health should be thought of as life-course issues, not just mid-life or late-life [problems]. We have to start thinking about brain health from birth, if not before.’
A team from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in the US collected data from 1,320 people with an average age of 58, who provided information about their stressful experiences and took part in memory and thinking tests.
The study, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, found experiencing more stressful events was associated with worse performance in the tests.
Stressful events could also lead to depression, which puts people at higher risk of dementia
Each stressful experience was equivalent to around four years of brain ageing in African-American participants. The average ageing effect across all participants was around 1.5 years per experience.
African Americans also experienced 60 per cent more stressful events on average than white people, which researchers said could explain a higher incidence of dementia in the ethnic group.
A type of brain scan rarely used in Britain because it is so expensive could help improve Alzheimer’s diagnosis in up to two thirds of patients, a Swedish study presented at the conference found.
A second study by UK researchers showed regular use of the PET scans could mean a more accurate diagnosis for one in five patients.