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Stressful life experiences can 'age brain by four years', says study

Stressful life experiences such as the death of a child, divorce, or losing a job could age the brain by at least four years, new research suggests.

Experts from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in America found 27 stressful events that could be links to poorer cognitive function in later life.

Experiencing just one major stressful event early in life can have an impact on later brain health, the study found.

Researchers examined data from 1,320 people who underwent a series of neurological tests examining several areas, including memory.

A total of 1,232 participants were white and 82 were African American. All had reported stressful experiences over their lifetime. The average age of participants was 58.

The study found that African Americans experienced over 60 per cent more stressful events than white people over their lifetimes.

The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal but it was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London.

The study did not look at the risk of dementia, however stressful experiences are known to impact brain function, which can itself lead to dementia in later life. Other research has suggested plausible links between stress and chronic inflammation, which could accelerate the development of dementia.

Dr Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “The stressful events that the researchers were focusing on were a large variety… the death of a parent, abuse, loss of a job, loss of a home… poverty, living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, divorce.”

She added that for some children, even the act of moving school could be a stressful life event.

Dr Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it’s no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life.

“However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia.”

Dr Brown said that while studying the role of stress is complex, the findings show that “more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events”.

The 27 stressful life events identified by researchers are:

  1. Repeating a year of school
  2. Being sent away from home for doing something wrong
  3. Father or mother unemployed
  4. One or both parents abusing alcohol
  5. One or both parents abusing drugs
  6. Dropping out of school
  7. Getting expelled or suspended from school
  8. Failing at school or higher education
  9. Getting fired
  10. Being unemployed for a long period
  11. Losing a parent
  12. Parents getting divorced
  13. Spouse or partner having an affair
  14. Significant difficulties with in-laws
  15. Losing a sibling
  16. Losing a child
  17. Having a child experience a life-threating injury
  18. Losing your home to fire, flood or natural disaster
  19. Physically assaulted or attacked
  20. Sexual assault
  21. Serious legal difficulties
  22. Being sent to prison
  23. Declaring bankruptcy
  24. Suffering financial loss or loss of property
  25. Going on benefits
  26. Entering the armed forces
  27. Experiencing combat

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