Poor Social Conditions May Increase Risk of Alzheimer’s

Comparing those who are least disadvantaged with those most disadvantaged, it appears that living in deprived conditions, may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s. This is shedding light on racial disparities, including the level of stress associated with racism and poverty.

It’s important that we acknowledge these findings, both from a medical standpoint, as well as a social justice standpoint. As we become more aware of how social inequality affects large populations, we can actively intervene, increasing support where it’s needed most.

Social Stressors Threaten Neural Health

Significantly affecting African Americans, numerous studies have found that certain conditions appear to have severe consequences on one’s brain health in later years. Impacting African Americans disproportionately, these factors included:

  • Poor living conditions
  • Stressful events, including the loss of a sibling
  • Divorced parents
  • Chronic unemployment

It’s clear that stress is harmful to our hearts — but what about our brains?

This is a topic of interest studied closely in recent years, as rates of heart disease and dementia continue to rise. A key variable is cortisol, a hormone that negatively affects memory, thinking and mood long-term. When an individual lives in conditions that contribute to chronic stress, their cognitive health becomes threatened.

Social Conditions Increase the Risk of Dementia Among African Americans

In the past, researchers have suggested that African Americans showcase a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, based on their genetics, as well as factors surrounding obesity, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. In more recent years, however, their attention has shifted based on the connection between social disadvantage and stress.

While studying the effects on African Americans, the types of stressors listed above can take an average of four years off of an African American’s life, in comparison to 1.5 years for non-Hispanic Whites. This was found within a University of Wisconsin study, which was recently presented at the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

To summarize:

  • Researchers confirmed racial inequities in relation to Alzheimer’s disease, even after the age of 90.
  • It was found that a single major stressful event in early life, can result in four years of cognitive aging.
  • In relation, African Americans are most at risk, experiencing 60 percent more stressful events than non-Hispanic Whites across their lifetime.

Based on these concerns, other studies found similar findings, including:

  • In California, it was found that African Americans who were born in states that showcase the highest rate of infant mortality, increased their dementia risk by 40 percent. This increased rate was in comparison to African Americans who were not from these high-risk states. When compared to Whites, their risk increased by 80 percent.
  • Another Wisconsin study found that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood, increased one’s risk of cognitive decline later in life. This included biomarkers linked to Alzheimer’s.

Although these studies were addressing different things, they were all reaching a similar conclusion. When it all boils down, it appears that one’s social environment significantly contributes to these differences. Based on these findings, it’s clear that more urgent interventions need to be offered to these at-risk communities.

How Is Stressed Linked to Alzheimer’s?

Although it’s clear that social issues may influence one’s cognitive health long-term, how does stress relate to neural health?

You may be thinking, technically, none of the above social ‘stressors’ apply to me, however, I’m under constant stress. Perhaps instead of being unemployed, you’re overworked and exhausted. You wake up feeling on edge and go to bed thinking about the hectic day you just had.

In that sense, how does stress as a whole, contribute to the aging brain?

Numerous studies have found a startling connection between chronic stress and the development of dementia, including:

  • One study, published in Brain, found that women who had experienced a major stressor in their life, had a 65 percent greater risk of developing dementia. It’s believed that elevated stress levels lead to a chain of events involving glucocorticoids, resulting in damage to the hippocampus.
  • In mice, it was found that chronic stress led to increased levels of tau and amyloid protein — a key hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

The thing is, stress is a normal part of life — in fact, cortisol is essential for bodily functions. Levels even fluctuate, being the highest in the morning. Through the day, these levels should drop and by nighttime, levels should drop off to nearly zero.

The problem is, cortisol levels spike and react to stress. Whether you experience stress from a physical illness, or a psychologically threatening situation, if experienced for prolonged periods, issues begin to arise. As mentioned, the hippocampus becomes vulnerable.

Being one of the few places in the brain that continues to make new brain cells, studies have shown that cortisol suppresses neurogenesis (the development of new neurons). While studying Alzheimer’s patients, it’s clear that cortisol levels are higher. Whether this precedes one’s condition or accelerates its progression, is yet to be determined.

How to Combat Daily Stress

We’ve all been there. When something upsets us, it’s natural to feel a bit worried. With that being said, if you find that you’re under constant stress, then you need to make some changes. Although you may have never considered the following before, implementing these suggestions can help you relax.

  • Deep breathing — Right now, take four deep breaths. How did it feel? Now, make this into a new habit. When you sit down at your desk, take a few deep breaths. Before you begin your commute, take a few deep breaths. There’s a reason that this technique has been an integral part of yoga for centuries, and modern research has confirmed its benefits.
  • Learn to meditate — There’s nothing odd about meditating, in fact, Steve Jobs was an active meditator. Start small, meditating for just two minutes a day. You will quickly learn how to channel your energy and more importantly, your focus. One study found that when meditating for just 8 weeks, individuals were able to increase grey matter in the parts of their brain responsible for memory, learning, and emotional regulation.
  • Eat well The foods you eat can directly influence your hormones, as well as your ability to effectively manage stress. Consuming a balanced, nutrient-rich diet can do wonders for all aspects of your body. Be sure to consume more B-vitamins (found in leafy green vegetables, fish, nuts, and avocados); vitamin C (found in a wide range of fruits and vegetables); and magnesium (found in oats, beans, spinach, kefir, and almonds). In addition, stay away from sugar, alcohol, and nicotine.

Whether you become more physically active or make more time for your social life, making small changes today, can significantly improve your future neural health.

Just remember, “Health is a state of body — wellness is a state of being.” Actively work towards being the best possible version of yourself. This begins by making more time for yourself. After all, if you want to achieve a different outcome tomorrow, you need to make new choices today.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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