Stress and anxiety are undoubtedly part and parcel of the modern fast-paced life. However, being stressed and anxious is normal until it remains a temporary problem. For example, feeling stressed before a job interview or an exam is an expected condition of the mind. But when it flares up to acute emotional outbursts at regular intervals, it may interfere with the person’s routine life and can be harmful. A recent study by Rotman Research Institute – a division of Baycrest Health Sciences – has revealed that chronic stress and anxiety may increase the risk of depression and even dementia.
The study – titled “Can anxiety damage the brain?” – concluded that there is “extensive overlap” of the brain’s neurocircuitry in all the three conditions of chronic anxiety, fear and stress. The study was published in the Current Opinion in Psychiatry.
Dr. Linda Mah, clinician scientist with Rotman Research Institute, says, “Pathological anxiety and chronic stress lead to structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.”
Stress can wreak havoc on the brain
Medical practitioners define chronic stress as an abysmal condition caused by an extended activation of a normal acute stress response. Chronic stress can ruin many systems in the body, apart from damaging certain crucial areas of the brain.
While conducting the study linking stress to depression, the researchers looked specifically at key structures in the brain – amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus – which are affected during exposure to chronic stress and noted an overactive amygdala when the participants were subjected to fear/anxiety and chronic stress.
Shocking facts about dementia
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines dementia as an umbrella term for a group of cognitive disorders typically characterized by memory impairment, as well as marked difficulty in the domains of language, motor activity, object recognition, and disturbance of executive function – the ability to plan, organize and abstract.
According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), an estimated, half a million Americans younger than 65 years suffer from some form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) puts forward certain signs and symptoms linked to dementia. These are:
- Facing increasing difficulty in communication
- Feeling lost in familiar places
- Needing help with personal care
According to an Alzheimer Disease International (ADI) report of 2015, dementia affects over 3 million people over the age of 65 in the U.S. every year. The Statistics Portal estimates a 3.8 incidence per 1,000 people in the age group of 60-64 years suffering from dementia in the U.S. which may increase steadily with age.
During the course of the study, Dr. Mah suggested that stress-induced damage to the hippocampus and PFC is “not completely irreversible.” She added, “We need to do more work to determine if interventions, such as exercise, mindfulness training and cognitive behavioral therapy can not only reduce stress but decrease the risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders.”
Early diagnosis can help overcome the problems. A previous study, published in Neurology in 2014, stated that 55 percent people with dementia had never had an evaluation of their thinking and memory skills with a doctor.
Early assessment and recovery
Acute stress can lead to dementia and other mental health problems which are not irreversible. Doctors advice early evaluation and identification of the problem for proper intervention at an early stage. If you or your loved one is suffering from dementia or any other mental problem, the Florida Mental Health Helpline is there to help you with the right information about the best possible treatments. You may chat online with our expert or call at our 24/7 helpline number 866-846-5588 to know more.