The study, conducted by Dr Edgardo Reich, was presented at the 22nd Meeting of the European Neurological Society (ENS) in Prague.
4.7 million people in Europe were suffering from Alzheimer's in the year 2000 and this figure is expected to increase to 8 million by the year 2030 and to 12 million by the year 2050.
Dr Reich explained:
"It is true, of course, that more people are affected because more people reach old age. But you do not necessarily get Alzheimer's because you're over 80. Clearly, its appearance and course are not only dependent on biological determinants. Environmental factors such as stress may play a role."
In order to determine whether the onset of Alzheimer's disease is associated with stressful life events, Dr. Reich and his team examined 107 patients who had been diagnosed as possibly having Alzheimer's disease in a mild to moderate stage. The average age of study participants was 72 years old.
The team compared the Alzheimer's patients to a control group of healthy individuals. The researchers asked participants in both groups (or family members and caregivers) whether they experienced particular stresses and strains in the three years before they were diagnosed.
Dr Reich said:
"In fact, three out of four Alzheimer's patients (73%) had to cope with severe emotional stress - three times as many as the control group in which only 24% experienced stress, grief and sorrow during the preceding three years."
The researchers found:
- 21 patients experienced death of a spouse or partner
- 14 patients experienced the death of a child
- 20 had violent experiences, such as robbery or physical assault
- 10 had car accidents that likely resulted in emotional wounds although no serious physical injures
Dr Reich commented:
"Stress, according to our findings, is probably a trigger for initial symptoms of dementia. Though I rule out stress as monocausal in dementia, research is solidifying the evidence that stress can trigger a degenerative process in the brain and precipitate dysfunction in the neuroendocrine and immune system."
More research is required in order to analyze these mechanisms in detail "but it is already obvious now that more attention should be directed than before to the emotional health of people, even and especially in old age," explained Dr Reich.