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Chronic stress could lead to depression and dementia, scientists warn

Research suggests stress and anxiety can damage areas of brain involved in emotional responses, thinking and memory

Sally Guyoncourt
Monday 25 January 2016 01:17 GMT
Research has suggested that too much stress can lead to depression and dementia
Research has suggested that too much stress can lead to depression and dementia (Rex Features)

Too much stress in your life can ultimately lead to depression and dementia, scientists have warned.

A major review of published research suggests that chronic stress and anxiety can damage areas of the brain involved in emotional responses, thinking and memory, leading to depression and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Linda Mah, the lead author of the review carried out at a research institute affiliated to the University of Toronto, said: “Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.”

The paper, published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychiatry, drew together findings from a number of recent studies on anxiety, fear and stress in animals, brain scans of stress and anxiety in healthy humans and clinical studies. Dr Mah’s team looked specifically at neural circuits in the brain linked to fear and anxiety.

Short-term, temporary episodes of fear and stress such as those experienced by people before an exam, job interview or driving test are part of everyday life. However, scientists claim when feelings of stress and anxiety become long-term, chronic conditions due to work or personal problems, they can begin to “wreak havoc” on immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems and cause damage to the brain.

On a positive note, Dr Mah believes this type of stress-induced damage to the brain is “not completely irreversible”. Treatment with antidepressant drugs and physical activity have been found to boost regeneration.

“Looking to the future, we need to do more work to determine whether interventions, such as exercise, mindfulness training and cognitive behavioural therapy, can not only reduce stress but decrease the risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders,” she said.

Dr Mah, who is assistant professor in the department of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Toronto, published this review in a follow-on from a study she conducted in 2014, which found the strongest evidence to date that anxiety may hasten the demise of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment into Alzheimer’s disease.

Mind, the mental health charity, said the study revealed how crucial it was to find ways to manage stress, particularly in the workplace.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, said: “This research highlights just how damaging unmanageable stress can be.

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“We already know that there is a link between long-term exposure to stress and both physical and mental health problems. We also know that stress is hugely prevalent in the workplace – over half of the workers (56 per cent) surveyed in our latest YouGov poll said that their work was very or fairly stressful.

“That’s why it’s so important that employers tackle the causes of stress and poor mental health at work, to ensure staff feel supported to help cope with workplace stress.”

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