A new research project will investigate the role of chronic stress as a risk factor for developing dementia.
A new Alzheimer’s Society funded research project will receive money from a £1.5 million package of six grants being given by the charity to find a cause, cure and way to prevent the disease.
The study being carried out by the University of Southampton will involve 18 months of monitoring 140 people aged 50 and over with mild cognitive impairment. Participants will be assessed for levels of stress and assessed for any progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.
About 60% of people with mild cognitive impairment are known to go on to develop Alzheimer’s. The participants in the trial will be compared to a group of 70 people without memory problems, who will be tested as a control group. Questionnaires will assess their personality type, style of coping with stressful events and their perceived level of social support and mood.
The process will be repeated after 18 months to measure any change from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease. Stressful life events will also be recorded. In addition, the researchers will take blood and saliva samples every six months to measure biological markers of stress.
Several illnesses are known to develop earlier or are made worse by chronic stress, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis.
However, far less is known about people with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease in relation to their experience of stress.
Professor Clive Holmes, lead investigator for the stress study at the University, said: “All of us go through stressful events. We are looking to understand how these may become a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s.
“This is the first stage in developing ways in which to intervene with psychological or drug based treatments to fight the disease.”
More effective coping methods for dealing with stress and a greater understanding of its biological impact could provide the answer, he added.
“There is a lot of variability in how quickly that progression happens; one factor increasingly implicated in the process is chronic stress. That could be driven by a big change - usually negative - such as a prolonged illness, injury or a major operation.”
Alzheimer's Society research manager, Anne Corbett, said: “The study will look at the role chronic stress plays in the progression from mild thinking and memory problems to Alzheimer's disease.
“We feel this is a really important area of research that needs more attention. The results could offer clues to new treatments or better ways of managing the condition.”