Stress May Increase The Risk Of Alzheimer’s Disease In Women, According To New Study

Women as a whole are feeling stressed out. A 2021 LinkedIn survey found that 74% of women say they regularly experience high levels of stress for work reasons, a significantly higher number than reported by men. A separate study found that women with kids are 23% more likely to experience burnout due to stress than men, showing just how much of a gender-based problem this really is. And if feeling the terrible side effects of excess pressure and anxiety wasn’t enough, there’s another downside. A recent study found that stress may increase women’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

As it stands, women are twice as likely as men to develop Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia affecting more than 6 million people in the United States alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. While it’s natural to assume that this is the case because women tend to live longer than men, that may not be the case. In fact, new research has found that stress increases beta-amyloid levels in the body, a protein that forms the plaque found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. The implications that has for women’s health are monumental.

While some research has found that hormonal changes that accompany menopause could increase Alzheimer’s risk in women, the latest study focused on stress and its effects on the brain. Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis published their findings in the journal Brain, revealing that more and more is being understood about the way stress affects our minds and bodies.

The link between stress and Alzheimer’s disease in women is clear

Dr. John Cirrito, co-lead study author and professor in the Department of Neurology at the university, believes that stress could impact women’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s as a direct link has been found even though it’s not fully understood just yet.

“Many other studies have demonstrated that women are more likely to be stressed, that stress is linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and that women are at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” he told Medical News Today. “We are not the first to put together this possible link. However, there could be many possible reasons that link stress, women, and Alzheimer’s disease, including correlational, comorbidities, and lifestyle.”

To make this determination, researchers used mice to dive into the effect of stress on beta-amyloid levels in the hippocampus, which is the area affected in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Mice were exposed to restraint stress or olfactory stress for three hours, with their beta-amyloid levels being measured before, during, and after the experiment. While both male and female mice experienced the same levels of stress, the female mice had significantly higher levels of beta-amyloid. Levels rose 50% in female mice in the first two hours and remained high, while only 20% of male mice had a small increase in beta-amyloid levels that came later in the experiment.

Whether or not these findings would be replicated in human beings is uncertain, but it’s definitely worth further research.

“It is not possible to extrapolate, with confidence, that this differential response to stress in mice translates precisely to humans,” said Dr. Emer MacSweeney. “However, the physiological explanation in mice is interesting, and could provide, at least in part, the explanation for the gender differences between men and women for risk of Alzheimer’s.”

She added: “The finding is, in turn, important in guiding future pharmaceutical research towards new treatment options, that may differ between males and females.”

Jennifer Still is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience. The managing editor of Bolde, she has bylines in Vanity Fair, Business Insider, The New York Times, Glamour, Bon Appetit, and many more. You can follow her on Twitter @jenniferlstill