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Chronic stress

Stress, Prescription Medications, and Alzheimer's Disease

Friday, December 28, 2007 by: Cindie Leonard
Tags: chronic stress, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) Medications and stress may be contributing to the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. In a recent study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, researchers discovered that when genetically modified mice were injected with dexamethasone, a glucocorticoid similar to the body's natural stress hormones, the levels of the proteins beta-amyloid and tau in the brain increased by 60 percent. This is significant because these are the same proteins that form the plaques and tangles which form the hallmark brain legions in Alzheimer's disease.

Frank LaFerla, a prominent researcher and co-author of the paper states, "It is remarkable that these stress hormones can have such a significant effect in such a short period of time. Although we have known for some time that higher levels of stress hormones are seen in individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer's, this is the first time we have seen how these hormones play such a direct role in exacerbating the underlying pathology of the disease."

Another co-author of this study, James L. McGaugh, expressed, "Although we expected that this drug, which, like the stress hormone cortisol, activates glucocorticoid receptors, might have some effect on plaques and tangles, it was surprising to find that such large increases were induced in relatively young mice."

Co-author Kim Green, a postdoctoral researcher in neurobiology and behavior, expresses concern regarding prescription medications commonly prescribed to the elderly. Some of the medications contain glucocorticoids. She states, "This study suggests that not only is stress management an important factor in treating Alzheimer's disease, but that physicians should pay close attention to the pharmaceutical products they prescribe for their elderly patients. These drugs may be leading to accelerated cognitive decline in patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's."

Pharmaceutical products aside, this research strongly suggests the value of stress management in preventing dementia. What is stress? Stress is a combination of responses in the body. Stress can be short-term (acute) or chronic. Acute stress is the fight or flight response. If a car is careening toward you at a high rate of speed, you will (or should!) experience acute stress. This is what can save your life. It is when you experience so many common stressors, such as heavy traffic, noise, money worries, illnesses, relationship problems, rising crime rates, or work frustrations, that stress takes a chronic form. In the short term, stress can be vital. Over time, it turns destructive.

How destructive can stress be on your body? Research has shown that prolonged stress can produce actual tissue changes and organ dysfunction. With the new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) techniques, scientists are able to prove visibly that chronic stress can shrink an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. Researchers have found that the brains of war veterans, as well as women who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, have a marked reduction in the size of their hypothalamus.

Stress also affects your brain by releasing powerful chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (also called adrenaline). The hypothalamic/pituitary-adrenal portion of your brain releases steroid hormones, including the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol affects systems throughout your body, including an increased heart rate. Your heart, lungs, and circulatory system are influenced by the increased heart rate. Blood flow may increase 300 to 400 percent. Blood pressure increases and breathing becomes rapid. Your mouth and throat may become dry. Skin may become cool and clammy because blood flow is diverted away so it can support the heart and muscle tissues. Even digestive activity shuts down.

Once again, occasional stress is normal. Once you have handled the situation, the stress goes away and you heal from the episode. But, if stressors accumulate over time, eventually the body becomes inefficient at handling even the least amount of stress. The brain, heart, lungs, vessels, and muscles become so chronically over or under activated that they become damaged. It is this sort of stress which may trigger or worsen heart disease, strokes, susceptibility to infection, sleep disturbances, sexual and reproductive dysfunction, memory and learning dysfunction, digestive problems, weight problems, diabetes, pain, skin disorders, and accelerates dementia.

"Extensive multidisciplinary studies have presented unequivocal evidence that our psychological responses to stress and our perceptions of stress to a considerable extent affect our susceptibility to disease. In active relationship, the immune, neuroendocrine, and nervous systems respond to the brain and psyche. Virtually all illnesses, from the flu to cancer, are influenced for good or bad by our thoughts and feelings." R. Lloyd, 1990 Healing Brain: A Scientific Reader

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects 4.5 million to 5 million adults in the United States. Considering the numerous recent studies correlating stress and Alzheimer's disease, it seems prudent to encourage our aging population to take stress management more seriously.

By incorporating techniques for physical, mental, and spiritual health, one can create positive physiological changes in the brain. These healing changes may possibly prevent the need for medications in the first place, along with the onset or progression of Alzheimer's disease.


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Dossey, L. 1995. Healing Happens; Utne Reader, no.71 (Sept/Oct)

Elsevier (2007, August 28). Alzheimer's: High Stress And Genetic Risk Factor Lead To Increased Memory Decline.

Pert, C. 1997. Molecules of Emotion. New York: Touchstone

ScienceDaily, (Aug. 30, 2006).Stress Significantly Hastens Progression of Alzheimer's Disease

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About the author

Cindie Leonard has a Master's degree in Psychology and specializes in research (namely psychoneuroimmunology), enjoys savoring time with family and friends, spoiling her pets, travel, beaches, cavorting around San Diego, volunteering at Torrey Pines State Reserve, and working on perfecting the art of "il dolce far niente." http://www.cindieleonard.com

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