Does stress affect Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Why does Mom's memory seem to grow worse when she's stressed, like when we're traveling or at the doctor's or when she has company? She's 76 and has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but sometimes her repetition and forgetfulness are not nearly so noticeable as other times.

Expert Answer

What you're observing is very common in people with Alzheimer's or related dementias. You may also notice that she has difficulty sequencing things (doing things in order) and following a conversation. That's because memory and thinking skills become taxed in a new or different situation. So your mother may perform much better at home, where there's consistency and routine. But with a lot of people around or activity, her brain is being stretched beyond its limits. She may become anxious about those experiences, adding more stress.

Even certain activities that appear stress-free to you, such as a visit from a friend or going to her longtime doctor's office, may be very stressful from her perspective. People with dementia generally do best under one-to-one conditions, but of course, that's not always possible.

In a situation where you suspect things may not go smoothly, it's best to make sure there's one person at your mother's side to help orient her, help her remember things, and ease anxiety. Watch for any signs of fatigue, which indicate maybe it's time to cut it short. The cues might be verbal (saying "I'm tired" or "I want to go home," or increased repetition and confusion) or nonverbal, such as irritability or apathy.