Chronic Stress Linked to Mild Cognitive Impairment and Other Health Problems

Stress can be good. It can motivate us to meet a deadline, attempt a new adventure, or can even inspire diligent preparation for a highly-anticipated event.

Stress can be positive, fun, and exciting. What?!?! Yes, stress can be good! It can motivate us to meet a deadline, attempt a new adventure like mountain climbing or riding a roller coaster, or can even inspire diligent preparation for a highly-anticipated event such as a wedding or birthday party. But, chronic stress—that is, unwanted stress that seems never-ending and inescapable—is something no one enjoys!

Chronic stress occurs for a number of reasons: financial struggles, bad relationships, a taxing job, etc. Chronic stress is usually accompanied with feelings of intense anxiety and symptoms of depression such as insomnia, hopelessness, or guilt. And, aside from the emotional turmoil caused by chronic stress, new research shows that it can cause deleterious, long-term physiological effects on the body as well. 

Depression and Stress Linked to Brain Changes and Dementia

Two recent studies showed a direct link between chronic stress, depression and brain changes. The first study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, showed that major depression and chronic stress causes loss of brain volume, contributing to mild cognitive impairment.[1]

The second study, published in Archives of General Psychiatry, noted that people who have anxiety and depression symptoms in middle age have a significant increased risk of dementia decades later. Researchers followed more than 13,000 people from their 40s and 50s into their 80s. Those who experienced anxiety and depression symptoms in middle age were about 20 percent more likely to go on to develop dementia. And, those who received a depression diagnosis later in life were at even greater risk with about a 70 percent increased risk of dementia compared to their anxiety- and depression-free peers.

Chronic Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Linked to Serious Health Problems

In addition to the risk of permanent cognitive impairment and dementia, studies have found many harmful health consequences can arise from chronic stress such as:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Asthma
  • Headaches
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Hair loss (alopecia)
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Tooth or gum disease
  • Cancer

Chronic stress, anxiety and depression even affect how you age. A study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital discovered that chronic stress and anxiety are directly linked to premature aging. In the study, researchers discovered that middle-aged and older women who frequently experienced anxiety attacks had significantly shorter telomere lengths than their peers. Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes at the end of chromosomes. They protect chromosomes from deteriorating and guard the genetic information at the ends of chromosomes during cell division. Therefore, having shorter telomeres is a sign of cellular aging. In this study, the telomere length of the high-anxiety group was so short that is was similar to what was seen in women 6 years older.[2]

Another study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress caring for a chronically ill child. Researchers found that the telomeres showed the effects of accelerated aging – so much so that stress seemed to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years![3]

6 Tips to Conquer Stress, Anxiety & Depression Symptoms

Let’s be realistic. We can’t control every difficult situation we’ll face in life. In fact, many times challenging circumstances and unplanned crises arise that are absolutely out of our control. The truth is that we all encounter stressful events and experience brief episodes of anxiety or depression when these events occur. However, chronic stress is different. Chronic stress lasts weeks, months or even years. It is usually accompanied by persistent bouts of anxiety or panic attacks and may even graduate to a full-blown depression diagnosis. Chronic stress does not “go away” and can make a person feel like they are unable to cope with daily tasks. It is this type of stress that leads to serious health consequences if not addressed –and that’s truly something to worry about.

If you struggle with chronic stress, know there is hope! To get you started on the road to recovery, we’ve provided 6 tips to help you conquer your anxieties. Click here to learn about these 6 stress-busting strategies.

[1] Hyo Jung Kang, Bhavya Voleti, Tibor Hajszan, Grazyna Rajkowska, Craig A Stockmeier, Pawel Licznerski, Ashley Lepack, Mahesh S Majik, Lak Shin Jeong, Mounira Banasr, Hyeon Son, Ronald S Duman. “Decreased expression of synapse-related genes and loss of synapses in major depressive disorder.” Nature Medicine, August 12, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nm.2886

[2] Nauert PhD, R. “Does Anxiety Accelerate Aging?” Psych Central. July 12, 2012.

[3] “Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), September 28, 2004. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0407162101.

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UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

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