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USU Researcher Involved in Swedish Study Linking Stress to Alzheimer's

Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013

USU faculty member and researcher Maria Norton
USU's Maria Norton was involved with a Swedish study linking stress to Alzheimer’s disease.

Results from a Swedish study linked women’s midlife stress to Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The paper was published in the BMJ Open online medical journal. It was reported in the Washington Post and National Public Radio, and even received a brief mention on Saturday Night Live.


Weekend Update anchor Cecily Strong quoted the study and quipped that every woman in the world was destined to develop the disease. But the truth is both more complex and more comforting than that, said Utah State University researcher Maria Norton, who was a co-author on the paper.


The study used data collected in a longitudinal study of 800 women in Gothenburg, Sweden. The representative sample was interviewed about stressors in their lives in 1968, then followed over 38 years. The conclusion of the latest paper to spin off from this study was that a woman’s midlife stress — like a death in the family, a divorce, or losing a job — “may have severe and long-standing psychological consequences.”


Those who reported the most stress were 15 percent more likely to develop dementia, and 21 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.


Stress likely has long-term effects on people of both sexes and all ages, Dr. Norton said. That’s the bad news. The good news is that people can also control many of the factors that contribute to AD.


Norton is an associate professor in the Family, Consumer and Human Development Department and a principal investigator at USU’s Center for Epidemiologic Studies. Her role in writing the paper came during a three-week sabbatical in Sweden, where she worked with another of the paper’s co-authors, Dr. Ingmar Skoog of Gothenburg University. (Skoog had been involved in USU’s Cache Valley Memory Study in the 1990s.)


Dr. Lena Johansson of Gothenburg University was the study’s lead author, and five additional researchers from Gothenburg University and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden also joined the effort. The paper’s eight collaborators examined the data collected from the Swedish study and worked to analyze it.


Researchers who began collecting that data in 1968 began their work long before Alzheimer’s disease was a household term — but the researchers had the foresight to ask questions about potential stressors in the women’s lives.


The latest findings from the Swedish study add to a growing body of research indicating stress can be associated with AD later in life.


But AD doesn’t have just one cause. And while a number of risk factors are associated with a higher risk of AD — and some, like genetics, are outside a person’s control — a lot of contributing factors can be controlled through lifestyle, Norton said.


Much of the advice will sound familiar: maintain a healthy weight, eat right, exercise, don’t smoke. Norton said it also makes sense to learn how to deal effectively with stress, since stress hormones can actually damage the brain if it’s constantly bathed in them.


Her current work continues to examine the association between stress and Alzheimer’s disease.


Related links:


Contact: Maria Norton, maria.norton@usu.edu

Writer:  JoLynne Lyon, 435-797-1463

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