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Stress and dementia risk

As we grow older we often become wiser, as the rich and diverse experiences of life shape our thinking. Yet some events in life can be so traumatic that they have damaging long-term effects on our brain, which science is only beginning to understand. How do our stressful life experiences impact our brain as we age? Do stressful or traumatic events make us more vulnerable to dementia? How can we foster resilience across our lifetimes to minimise the damaging impacts of trauma on our brain?

In our quest to prevent dementia, we are wrestling with these questions at the Wicking Centre. Two studies are underway which are only possible with the support of our wonderful research participants.

In our Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project participants we are measuring (in hair samples!) levels of a hormone called cortisol, which is secreted during times of stress to enable us to adapt. Through this work we are learning how our stress hormone system changes as we age and how this relates to our brain health, physical health and cognition.

In our emerging ISLAND project we are developing a new study to investigate how stress hormones, brain health and dementia risk are influenced by traumatic life events. We will characterise individuals’ cortisol levels at ‘baseline’, along with their perceived stress levels, physical health and cognition. We will then take repeated measurements across time to see how stress levels, brain health and physical health change after trauma, with the seasons and with age. This will help us to understand when, how and why do stressful and traumatic events contribute to dementia. We hope this will pave the way for new initiatives aimed at managing stress and building resilience to decrease dementia risk.