A review of published research has discovered that long-term stress and anxiety can damage areas of the brain that deal with emotional responses and memory. The research suggests that this damage can lead to depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr Linda Mah is the lead author of the review, which was carried out at a research institute affiliated with the University of Toronto. Speaking about the findings, she said the following:
“Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.”
The review has been published in journal, Current Opinion in Psychiatry and pulled together findings from numerous recent studies on fear, anxiety and stress in animals as well as clinical studies and brain scans of anxiety and stress in healthy humans. Dr Mah’s team were specifically interested in seeing how the neural circuits in the brain linked to anxiety and fear.
Short-term stress, such as before an exam or job interview, are part of everyday life. The issues come when the stress becomes more long-term, for example if there are work or personal problems. Scientists claim that when this sort of stress takes hold, it can ‘wreak havoc’ on the immune, cardiovascular and metabolic systems, over time causing damage to the brain.
While this may sound concerning, Dr Mah does believe that this sort of damage can be reversed. Physical activity and antidepressant medication have been found to boost regeneration.
She explains that we need to do more work in the future to determine whether or not interventions like mindfulness, exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy can help not only to reduce stress but to lower the risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders.
Dr Mah is an assistant professor in the geriatric psychiatry department at the University or Toronto. The review she published was a follow-on from a 2014 study. This study found the strongest evidence to date that anxiety affects the rate of demise for those with mild cognitive impairment into Alzheimer’s disease.
Mental health charity Mind say this study highlights how crucial it is to find ways to manage stress, especially workplace related stress. Emma Mamo, head of workplace well-being at the charity commented to say the following:
“This research highlights just how damaging unmanageable stress can be.
“We already know that there is a link between long-term exposure to stress and both physical and mental health problems. We also know that stress is hugely prevalent in the workplace – over half of the workers (56%) surveyed in our latest YouGov poll said that their work was very or fairly stressful.”
Emma went on to say this is why it is so important for companies and employers to tackle workplace stress and mental health at work, ensuring employees feel supported.