When I started working in my first lab researching Alzheimer’s Disease, I was idealistic, determined the field would find a cure for the insidious disease in my lifetime. And I still hope we do. Alzheimer’s runs in my family like it does in many families. But my time working in the field has forced me to realize that we already know how to fend off the debilitating effects of dementia. It’s just not the answer we were looking for.
For years, I researched in and out of the lab. I took classes about the brain and dementia. I read neuroscience books in my leisure time. I consumed every bit of information the field offered on cognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and similar diseases. From the vagus nerve to cytokines gone wrong to demyelination, I scoured every potential source of memory loss.
And everything I read, in one way or another, pointed back to the same perpetrator: stress.
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.” — George Burns, 1896–1996
There are many contributors to dementia: environmental factors, health risks, neurological changes, and toxins in the body. Genetics plays a role, but in all but the most extreme cases, there’s not a simple gene that codes for dementia. As I researched these symptoms and biomarkers, the trail almost always led me back to physical or psycho-emotional stress. But in my mind, the answer had to be more complicated.
In 2010, researchers concluded that chronic stress significantly increased women’s likelihood of developing dementia. In 2013, researchers found that chronic stress quickens the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. In 2017, a meta-analysis pointed to stress as a likely contributor to dementia. In 2017, another study successfully used measures of stress to predict dementia onset.
These are four of countless studies supporting the same conclusion: stress significantly contributes to dementia. That is not to say stress is the end-all-be-all of dementia. I’ve been researching this insidious syndrome long enough to know better than that. But no one can deny that stress plays an integral role in memory loss and cognitive decline.
What negatively impacts the gut-brain relationship? Stress.
What causes cytokines and other important proteins to become toxic? Stress.
What contributes to and induces demyelination? Stress.
Stress is the key to dementia.
There’s been an answer — albeit not a perfect answer but a pretty good one — sitting in front of us all along. The problem is that stress may be a simple answer, but it is not a simple solution. Our society wants to cure dementia, but it doesn’t want to change its lifestyle.
We want a pill or an injection that we take at age 65 to keep our minds sharp and memory intact.
Scientists release study after study showing that stress exacerbates, accelerates, and predicts dementia. But we don’t listen because it’s not the quick fix we’ve been looking for.
This pattern of behavior is not isolated to dementia research. Modern society has a habit of cherry-picking the scientific advice we want to heed. This is especially evident in the Blue Zone Study.
In 2009, Dan Buettner published his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, which covered the lifestyle of a collection of communities across the globe with especially long life expectancies. In addition to longer life, these communities have significantly reduced rates of depression, dementia, cancer, and heart disease. Buettner’s book became a bestseller and was quickly followed by a series of books on how to live like a member of the blue zones. The blue zone people became a cultural phenomenon. They were the key to living longer, and we wanted to mimic them — almost.
That is, we wanted to mimic the blue zone lifestyle as long as it didn’t interfere with our lifestyle. What was their diet? What herbs did they take? How often did they drink, sleep, exercise? But we rarely ask: How did they live?
Two years after The Blue Zones, a group of researchers at the University of Athens published a study on the sociodemographics and lifestyles of these people. While diet, sleep, and other healthy habits contributed to their longevity, the study concluded that long life in the blue zone is a product of regular socializing, a sense of purpose, and low-stress levels as much as it is a product of physical health.
The lifestyle of the blue zone people vastly differs from the rat race culture pervasive in Western society. They live simply and emphasize community. In fact, microbiologist and health coach P.D. Mangan points out that “the factor that unites all of these [blue zone people] is either being less touched by modernity, or actively rejecting it.”
That is not to say we must reject modernity to live long, but there are elements of our modern culture that are undeniably toxic. As long as we are unwilling to eliminate these stressful components, we will be subject to their effects.
In addition to a collection of research studying how blue zone people live, testimonials from the individuals we’re seeking to mimic reflect the importance of stress on achieving a long life. The late George Burns, who lived to be 100, shared his secret to health and longevity: “If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”
Maybe we will find that shiny pill one day. I hope we do. But what if the only answer is to change our lifestyle? To simplify, change our priorities, and eliminate stress as well as can, even if that means giving up the big house and fancy car? Can we do that?
Or are we so entrenched in our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses lifestyle that we will continue to turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence incriminating stress?