An illustration of a person holding a puzzle-pieced brain is shown.
People who manage their stress levels may reap cognitive rewards. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Looking for ways to fight off Alzheimer’s disease? You may want to add stress management to your bag of tricks.

Older people who report feeling chronically stressed are more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s in some people.

This is according to research involving more than 500 older adults in New York City—all age 70 or older—who are participants in a long-term study of the aging brain.

Those who reported having the highest stress levels are more than twice as likely to have mild cognitive impairment as those experiencing low stress.

The study provides strong evidence that perceived stress increases the likelihood an older person will develop memory loss.

The findings suggest that treating stress in older people could postpone or even prevent the development of Alzheimer’s.

A new piece of the puzzle

“In health psychology they’ve been looking at stress and the impact on health for a long time, and finding relationships with heart disease and diabetes,” said Maegan Hatfield-Eldred, PhD, a neuropsychologist with the Spectrum Health Medical Group Memory Disorders Clinic.

“This is another piece we can add to the potential negative health impacts of stress: It could put you at higher risk for dementia down the road,” Dr. Hatfield-Eldred said.

This isn’t surprising, she said, because researchers have long known that stress interferes with memory.

“So if you’re chronically under stress, it makes sense that you would be at higher risk for an illness that has memory problems,” she said.

Yet, she cautioned against inflating the role of stress in the development of Alzheimer’s.

“Stress alone isn’t going to cause dementia,” she said. Rather, stress is “one factor (that) might affect your risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.”

And the good thing about stress? It can be managed.

“We can do things to address stress, whereas your genes—the genetic makeup that puts you at risk for Alzheimer’s disease—you can’t do anything about,” Dr. Hatfield-Eldred said.

Dr. Hatfield-Eldred offers 4 tips for managing stress:

1. Know the cause

Identify the cause of the stress and do what you can to relieve it. “If it is a lifestyle situation—whether it be work demands, family demands, overextending oneself—start there,” Dr. Hatfield-Eldred said. “Try to simplify things as much as you can.”

2. Relax

If you can’t remove the cause of the stress, find strategies and activities to help you relax: deep breathing, hobbies, listening to music, meditation, yoga and exercise.

3. Check your perceptions

Watch how you’re thinking about and interpreting daily hassles and stressors.

“We know that what we tell ourselves or how we think about things affect our perceptions, our emotions,” Dr. Hatfield-Eldred said. “So if we look at a stressful event as this huge traumatic event, if we look at all the negatives that come with it, that’s going to be more stressful … than if we look at a daily hassle as, ‘Oh, this is part of everyday life.’”

Changing our perceptions of stressful situations can bring stress levels down, she said. Using positive self-talk and related coping techniques will have benefits for our overall health, including brain health.

4. Compensate for changes

If you’re older and you’re already experiencing mild changes in your thinking skills, that in itself can cause stress. To counter this, Dr. Hatfield-Eldred recommends using compensatory strategies.

“Making lists, keeping notebooks to keep track of things, keeping visual reminders up in the home, having people help you with things—that is going to reduce the stress that’s caused by some of those early cognitive changes,” she said.