Psychological Distress Increases Risk of Late Life Dementia

psychological distress dementiaPsychological distress increases the risk of late-life dementia. Researchers at the Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen who collaborated with the National Research Centre for the Working Environment, and the Danish Dementia Research Centre, uncovered that distress in midlife increases the risk of suffering from life-altering dementia. The findings indicate that distress is an important risk factor when reducing the risk of dementia.

Psychological distress is defined as a state of emotional suffering, which may be accompanied by somatic symptoms. Vital exhaustion is a feeling of unusual fatigue, increased irritability, and demoralization, which can be a sign of psychological distress. Vital exhaustion is believed to be a response to an unsolved problem in a person’s life, especially if they are unable to cope with prolonged stressors.


When exposed to prolonged stress, physiological reactions include cardiovascular changes along with excessive production of cortisol. Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can lead to psychological distress along with an increased risk of dementia.

Researcher Sabrina Islamoska explained, “For each additional symptom of vital exhaustion, we found that the risk of dementia rose by 2 percent. Participants reporting 5 to 9 symptoms had a 25 percent higher risk of dementia than those with no symptoms, while those reporting 10 to 17 symptoms had a 40 percent higher risk of dementia compared with not having symptoms.”

The researchers looked at data collected from 6,807 Danish participants who reported on questions regarding vital exhaustion. The average age at the start of the study was 60 years and participants were followed until the end of 2016.

Islamoska added, “We were particularly concerned whether the symptoms of vital exhaustion would be an early sign of dementia. Yet, we found an association of the same magnitude even when separating the reporting of vital exhaustion and the dementia diagnoses with up to 20 years.”


Even after adjusting for other factors which could increase dementia risk, vital exhaustion remained strongly associated with a higher dementia risk.

Islamoska concluded, “Stress can have severe and harmful consequences not just for our brain health, but our health in general. Cardiovascular risk factors are well-known modifiable risk factors for dementia, and in some countries, a stagnation or even a decreasing incidence of dementia has been observed. Our study indicates that we can go further in the prevention of dementia by addressing psychological risk factors for dementia.”

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Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.


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