Can stress cause Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

For the past twenty years, since moving to North Carolina, I noticed I will want to say a word and will freeze because I could not remember it and that made me feel embarrassed. Now that I am in my fifties, I am forgetting what I want to tell my daughter from the kitchen to her bedroom, until I retrace my steps and figure it out. I did go through some traumatic times when I was younger. My parents were very strict and I had nightmares of getting beat even when I had my children until age 32, when the nightmares subsided. I also had marital problems before I met my present husband - who is another story to tell. Plus I am going back to college and have a lot of research and by the end of the night I am brain tired. I do have a good long term memory, but I would like to know if moving to another place or past trauma in your life be the underlying cause of Alzheimer's disease?

Expert Answer

Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of Caring.com. He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

There is no evidence to suggest that psychological trauma or other psychological difficulties cause Alzheimer's Disease or any other dementia. On the other hand, psychological difficulties, most commonly depression or anxiety, can impair memory. These memory effects are fortunately reversible with proper treatment. There are a number of other medical problems, medications and substances that can cause memory problems. The memory difficulties with the vast majority of these problems can be reversed when the cause is understood and treated.

Symptoms of depression include more than problems with mood. It is common that people with serious depression also struggle with their memory, concentration and attention. This can create a syndrome known as "pseudodementia." The depression symptoms can look like dementia, and can be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's Disease or some other form of dementia. This is a very serious mistake, because we know how to treat depression, and when the depression is treated, the memory problems along with the other associated depression symptoms will improve or completely disappear. Similarly, anxiety illnesses including Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, can cause problems with memory, concentration and attention. As with depression, if the anxiety is properly treated, the anxiety as well as the problems with memory, concentration and attention will get markedly better or disappear.

I would recommend you explain your difficulties to your primary care physician, and get a thorough evaluation. If that does not identify a cause, I would suggest you get a mental health evaluation. I suspect one of these professionals will be able to help you. If not, you may want to consider working with a neuropsychologist to get testing. This would help you understand the nature of your memory and word finding problems, and likely clarify the diagnosis.