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Chronic Stress, Overworked Brains, and Alzheimer’s

In the United States, people work long hours and rarely take vacations.

Being a culture that is battling burnout, Americans are said to be the most “overworked” people in the developed world. But at what true cost?

The impact on one’s personal life and physical health are apparent. However, researchers are also now beginning to understand the true neural ramifications of a population that is overworked.

Long Working Hours, Chronic Stress and Alzheimer’s

“Burnout” is real, and it is a term that is now being used within the medical community. 

Although there is technically no such diagnosis, doctors are seeing more and more patients suffering from chronic stress. In most cases, the cause of their stress is triggered by work.

As reported in this survey, when 2,000 full-time U.S. employees were asked to rate their stress on a scale of one to five, more than 25 percent said four. Overall, more than 70 percent rated their stress at a level of three or higher. The most significant variables were complicated work, long or erratic hour, a lack of control, and tough deadlines.

This is leading to increasing rates of burnout

Known as a lifestyle-related condition, burnout has been shown to cause lasting changes in the brain’s physical structure. When exposed to chronic stress, key areas of the brain, including the amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex appear to age prematurely.

Since neural regions associated with fear and anxiety overlap with areas impacted by Alzheimer’s, chronic stress due to one’s work environment may lead to an increased risk of dementia.

Chronic stress and depression are also closely linked, which both affect the brain’s hippocampus region. It has been found that when suffering from Alzheimer’s, the hippocampus shrinks. The same is true when suffering from depression.

The good news is, researchers also believe that stress-induced damage may be reversible. Physical activity is one variable that is believed to improve the hippocampus.  

A Genetic Variant May Lead to an “Overworked” Brain

It is well understood that age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s. However, could an overworked brain in one’s youth increase their risk?

In this study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers found that under certain circumstances, this association may be true. Young adults who carry the APOE4 genetic variant, displayed changes in brain activity years before any symptoms arise.

The study supports the theory that the brain’s memory function may wear itself out over time, resulting in the development of Alzheimer’s. After studying 36 volunteers (half of which carried at least one copy of the APOE4 gene variant), it was clear that the brains of carriers and non-carriers showed differences in brain activity patterns.

To summarize:

  • The participants were between the ages of 20 and 35 years.
  • All 36 volunteers performed normally on tasks that tested their level of cognition.
  • Using fMRI scans, the researchers examined their brains while at rest. They also observed brain activity while the participants were performing a memory task.
  • Those who carried the APOE4 gene variant displayed unique brain patterns, even while at rest.

It is important to note that not everyone that carries this gene variant will go on to develop Alzheimer’s. In fact, the APOE4 gene is found in approximately one-quarter of the population. Of those who inherit one copy, they experience a risk that is four times higher than normal. When people inherit two copies, their risk goes up approximately ten times the normal risk.

The researchers concluded that the memory part of the brain may work harder in APOE4 carriers. In turn, this may lead to an exhausted, overworked brain.

What You Can Change

Although you cannot control your genetics, you can control environmental variables. No matter how young you are, it is never to early to maintain a balanced diet and exercise regularly.

While on the topic of work, this article, Sitting For Long Periods May Increase Your Risk of Dementia is an interesting read.

The key to prevention is awareness. Not only should you be aware of the latest research, but also more aware of yourself. Are you stressed on most days? What areas of your personal lifestyle can you actively change?

Take action today, as changes in the brain may begin long before your elderly years. Give the BrainTest app a try to better assess your current level of cognition. Your results can then be discussed with a your doctor and changes can be tracked across time.

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