Tough Times Can Leave Their Mark on the Older Brain

Tough Times Can Leave Their Mark on the Older Brain

Divorce, death in the family, money troubles and serious health problems don't just stress you out -- these negative life events may actually accelerate the aging of your brain, new research suggests.

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"We used a new algorithm to predict brain aging after horrible life events -- like divorce or death -- and negative life events accelerate brain aging by about one-third of a year for each event," said study lead author Sean Hatton, a project scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

So, if you're unlucky enough to have two serious issues, that means your predicted brain age will be 8 months older, the study found.

How is it that these events that most people experience at some point in their lives can speed up the aging of your brain? The researchers don't know for sure, as this study wasn't designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

But Hatton said other research has shown that stressful life events can speed up shortening of telomeres. These are the caps at the end of DNA strands that protect them from damage. Telomeres shorten with age.

Dr. Daniel Kaufer, chief of cognitive neurology and memory disorders at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said stressful life events may promote inflammation that increases aging. He said it may be that it's not the event itself that causes the aging, but a person's response to it.

"When people react negatively to stressful life events, they often don't eat well or sleep well, and that can have an impact on your brain," said Kaufer, who wasn't involved with the research.

The study included more than 350 men with an average age of 62. All were veterans who served in the military between 1965 and 1975. About 80 percent never experienced combat situations. They were predominantly white (nearly 88 percent).

Researchers asked the men about negative "fateful life events," which included death of a family member or friend, divorce, separation, miscarriage, financial difficulties and serious medical emergencies. The men answered questions twice, five years apart.

They were asked about certain lifestyle habits and questions to determine their socioeconomic status. They were also given screening exams to look for memory troubles and tested for a gene that indicates a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Finally, the participants all had an MRI scan of their brain. The researchers then input all of this information into their algorithm to calculate predicted brain age. The algorithm also controlled for factors such as heart disease risk, alcohol use, socioeconomic status and ethnicity because all these factors have been linked to increased aging.

Although this study only looked at men, Hatton said women and people of different races would likely experience "similar biological weathering."

Kaufer said he didn't have any reason to think other groups, such as women or people of a different race, would have different results. He noted, however, that people from other cultures might react to some of these stressful events differently. For example, "certain cultures may see divorce as more taboo," he said.

And, what about folks who live a healthier lifestyle? Do they have protection from stressful life events?

Hatton said these events likely affect everyone, but people who eat right and exercise and keep alcohol consumption to healthy levels have a "reduced risk of accelerated brain aging and may be mitigating the impact of these events."

Kaufer agreed. "There's a lot of individual variability in how people react to such events, and diet and other lifestyle factors could influence how the brain and body respond over the long term," he said.

This study also hints at possible therapeutic interventions, Kaufer added. Helping people bolster their psychological resilience might boost their ability to "constructively adapt to stressful situations," he noted.

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Hatton said if you're experiencing a stressful life event, "be mindful of your physical and mental health, and especially pay attention to your alcohol consumption." He said excess alcohol use can contribute to faster aging.

The study was published recently in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

More information

The Alzheimer's Association has advice for keeping your brain healthy.


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