Your Past Impacts Your Present – Stressful Lifetime Events Linked to Later Cognitive Decline

Research recently presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed a link between stressful events in childhood and early adulthood and cognitive decline in later years.


The Study

The longitudinal study used individuals registered with the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention. The participants were assessed for cognitive function every two years. The researchers measured six cognitive domains that focused on executive function and memory. As well, the participating individuals were asked about 27 stressful events in their lives.

The stressful events included childhood events such as having an alcoholic parent, experiencing a divorce of your parents, the death of a sibling, dropping out of school, physical or sexual assault. Adult events such as divorce, bankruptcy, being fired from a job, and experiencing combat were also included in the questionnaire.

The researchers looked at the effect of stressful events on later cognitive decline and found a highly significant association across the entire group between stressful events and cognitive decline. The study analysis controlled for factors like smoking and higher body mass index which also impact cognitive decline.


Alzheimer’s Risk Develops Over a Lifetime

This study highlights the growing body of evidence that the risk of cognitive decline develops over a lifetime. A lifetime of choices either build cognitive resilience or increase risk. But the study also highlights the effect of the social environment on brain health. Our social structures, particularly those within the family, have a huge impact on future cognitive decline. Creating a supportive family dynamic can go a long way towards supporting brain health. The impact of a positive family environment resonates in the lives of your children even when they have moved on into their adult years.


Stressful Life Events

Most stressful life events are outside of our control. We may choose to place ourselves in highly stressful situations, like combat, but most events are not chosen. Our reaction to those unexpected events becomes important for future brain health.

One way to combat stress in our lives is through development of our spiritual lives. Fostering a spiritual life will create a resilient response to stressful events. When we have a larger framework within which to understand stressful life events, we can reduce their impact on us.

This is particularly effective if we have a strong sense that God is looking after us. When my husband was deployed overseas, I had a strong sense that God was looking after me and that everything would be okay. This helped me maintain a sense of serenity, which I could pass on to my children. I didn’t know at the time that I was also positively impacting both their and my brain health.

A strong spiritual life also gives us a horizon that includes eternity. When you lose someone you love, knowing that you will see a loved one again diminishes the pain of loss. Instead of despair there is hope.


Other Lifestyle Factors

Controlling for other lifestyle factors is another way to compensate for stressful life events. We know that physical exercise and good nutrition have a positive impact on brain health. When faced with job loss or financial distress, ensuring that you are getting adequate exercise will have a positive impact on stress levels and the quality of sleep.

Nutrition also plays an important role in brain health. Researchers have developed the Brain Essential Nutrient scale as a way to identify important nutrients for brain health.

Eating well and the physical activity you engage in are two ways you can positively impact brain health and reduce the impact of stressful life events.


Reducing Stress Is Important

Our lives are complex. Events, and responses to those events, have a lifelong impact on us. Ensuring that you meet stressful life events with a focus on reducing their effects will have a positive impact on brain health. Eat well, exercise and develop your inner life. You will build your cognitive resilience and reduce your dementia risk. Plus you will just enjoy life more!


As one of the founders and creative minds behind Fit Minds Inc., Nicole has been creating cognitive stimulation therapy programming since 2010. An experienced curriculum developer, teacher and coach, she brings a wealth of experience to creating and teaching the Fit Minds Program. Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.

b Greening
2. August 2017
b Greening
2. August 2017
I am not convinced that the changes in the brain are related to stressful events in a person's life which then contribute to a decline in cognition. Unless more information is supplied about a research study then it is hard to accept the findings. One needs to know what variables were ruled out and whether there was a control group plus an experimental group. Everyone has stressful events in their lives. I think whoever hypothesised that stress is related to the development of dementia may have set out to prove the theory rather than to see if there was any correlation between stress and dementia such as alzheimers disease.


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