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Stress, Depression & Your Alzheimer’s Risk

Stress, Depression & Your Alzheimer’s Risk

Modern life is stressful. “I’ve had a stressful day” isn’t an uncommon thing to say or hear. Considering Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, it’s essential to understand how stress increases our risk.

In the beginning, other than a family history, I wouldn’t have assumed that my Mom had lifestyle risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Due to what I perceive as a higher risk due to genetics, I do a lot of reading about ongoing research.

I’ve recently learned that reading is vital for maintaining cognitive health. Interestingly, Mom mostly read magazines and condensed books. That was probably better than nothing, but it does make me wonder if it was enough mental stimulation.

Halfway through a stressful day, I had given up on being productive. I attempted to read some articles on my phone in the garden, but the glare was too much. Eyes closed, listening to the chimes and the water feature, I got to thinking.

I had managed to read a recent article from Insider magazine about 19 Science-backed ways to reduce Alzheimer’s Risk; (Andrea Michelson). Most of these reduction techniques are not new to anyone who reads as much as possible about Alzheimer’s prevention.

What struck me was the section on stress and depression.

I have not read a lot about how depression can increase your risk, but I think it could have been one factor in my Mom’s disease. Mom wasn’t depressed like we usually think of depression. Given that she wasn’t clinically depressed, I likened her general mood to long-term, sustained frustration. Indeed, we all have stress and frustration, but I don’t think most of us are aware of living with sustained frustration. We chalk it up to “normal life.”

To put it another way, I think Mom lived her life always trying to achieve what she wanted while navigating the roadblocks put in her way by others. She graduated high school at 17.5 and wanted to go to fashion design school in San Francisco. Her parents didn’t allow that. Mom wanted to travel a lot more than we did, but Dad had “been there, done that” and wasn’t interested in returning even with those of us who hadn’t “been there.”
Overall, I don’t think she had an unhappy life. Being thwarted from doing many of the things she wanted to do, it does make you wonder. Laying in the garden, trying to motivate me to feel stressed and wanting to give up made me aware of a few things.

First, being in nature is right for your whole body. I get a lot of better ideas outdoors than I do inside. Second, all humans need to have a purpose, which makes us want to get up and do things every day. We all make choices and sacrifices, which is why I think a discussion on stress and depression as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s is essential.

A recent review of Alzheimer’s research has identified ten lifestyle choices that could reduce our risk of developing the disease.

All of these suggestions are backed up by strong scientific evidence.

As I write this, the United States is suffering from a Coronavirus pandemic. Most of us have isolated in our homes. Many are working from home, juggling caregiving, and attempting to maintain ourselves. I’m concerned the whole globe is at severe risk of developing Alzheimer’s in a more negative moment. I see how this “new normal” can have lasting improvements in our lives in a more joyous moment.

The first thing to remember is we have to take care of ourselves first. We can’t help others, either immediate family or our community, if we’re diminished. Ignoring the unique challenges of living through a pandemic for a moment, let’s focus on stress reduction.

Generally speaking, exercise, especially outdoors, improves my mood tremendously. Even indoor exercise is beneficial. I’m reminded of a morning that started badly. I don’t recall what the problem was; I do remember the result.

For fear that I would continue to feel homicidal, I marched into my spin class and jumped on a bike. The instructor who knew me well could see something was up. She asked if I was ok to which I replied, “I will be in an hour.” Sure enough, after giving it my all in that class, I hopped off the bike and said, “it’s ok now, I don’t feel homicidal anymore.”

There were small laughs. I think they were camouflaging minor concerns for their well being. As I said, I don’t remember what was bothering me. The result was an hour pedaling away, raising my heart rate, and focusing on my body made the problem go away.

This is the reverse of what researchers have found while studying Alzheimer’s. Your mental health plays a large roll in your physical health. Your physical health does play a large roll in your emotional well-being. With this in mind, what can we do, especially family caregivers, to reduce stress?

First, do your best to plan as far ahead as possible. When you realize a parent or spouse shows signs of cognitive issues, start researching and understanding how their path may look. In the short term, this may not help your mental health. However, understanding the course ahead will give you time to plan your path in the long run.

Frequently, we take on the task of caregiving with the best of intentions. Lacking the awareness of what may happen, we march on doing what needs doing. It’s noble until it becomes too much to bear.

Suddenly, we find ourselves overwhelmed, exhausted, and completely stressed out. All of this understandably can lead to depression. Knowing that our mental health can quickly affect our physical health means we have to have plans for our care.

With this in mind, here are some ideas and tips I’ve used or learned from other caregivers. First, exercise is essential for many reasons. Physical exertion helps lower your blood pressure; it can help control your blood sugar, enabling you to sleep better.

Generally speaking, controlling blood pressure and sugars are also crucial in reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s. Sleep is also vital for good brain health. Exercise is also an essential piece of self-care.

I’m into cycling, but I also walk my dogs regularly.

Walking is an excellent way to maintain your physical and mental health.

Walking with a friend would be ideal. In addition to the physical benefits, you’d get socialization, which is essential as well.  One of my past guests walked with his spouse. As her health declined, their walks got shorter. Eventually, he relied on “house walking,” which is what you think. He walked around the house. Personally, this would bore me to tears, and I probably wouldn’t do it, but the pandemic quarantine has shown me there are alternatives.

Until the shutdown, I attended workouts at my gym three days a week. At the beginning of the shutdown, I was under a lot of stress, so I tried exercises via YouTube. It took a bit of time to train my dogs that this wasn’t playing time for them, but they learned! Eventually, I came to appreciate the variety and flexibility of doing workouts at home. Gyms are still closed, and it’s not likely that I’ll return to mine. However, I miss the socialization I got by attending, so this is something to consider when gyms reopen.

Yoga and dancing are two activities that you might be able to do with your loved one. Indeed, this is an option while they’re in the earlier stages of their disease. In the long run, if you establish a “couples” workout routine, it may be familiar enough for them to continue in the later stages.

Dancing is comfortable, especially at home.

Put on your favorite music and throw cares out the window. No one is watching, so be silly (that’s good for your brain too), laugh, reminisce. It’s all right for your mental health.
When you consider that I was able to train three Golden Retrievers that there was a difference between Mom on the floor exercising and Mom playing with them, then it’s possible to do a home workout with your care partner close. If they participate as well, great. The idea is to make time each day for you.

Additionally, mindfulness is beneficial. I learned this also early on in the shutdown. Generally, I’m not a meditation or mindfulness practitioner. It’s hard to quiet my brain, but I had a guest who helped me learn some mindfulness techniques. My Mom ended up in the hospital, and the decision making stress was winding me up for a meltdown. I stopped, acknowledged how I felt, asked myself why I felt that way, and almost immediately went from breakdown to feeling good about myself.

Until now, I would do my best to suppress negative feelings, but acknowledging them works much better! No stress headache, no explosive anger, just understanding. Now that I’ve experienced the benefits of this, I try to do it whenever I’m feeling less than positive.

Lastly, I’ve found that accepting that I’m tired instead of fighting to stay awake is genuinely beneficial. If I find myself nodding off in front of the TV, I will get in bed and either read (a novel) or watch a TV show on my iPad if I’m too tired for those activities. I will listen to a podcast. Generally, the melodic rhythm of voices puts me to sleep in minutes. I use this technique to go right back to sleep after waking to use the bathroom. It’s a blessing! I used to lie awake for up to an hour, my mind turning over with too many thoughts.

I have found that the time it takes to go to sleep is better done earlier. The extra rest makes me feel better. If I wake up when my husband gets up, I find if I use my techniques to go back to sleep, I wake up in a better state.

In summary, everyone has a different life. Just as Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently, we all need to find our path to self-care. We don’t want to become part of the caregiving statistic that states: 65% of caregivers are hospitalized or die before the person for who we’re caring.

Fading Memories was created to support family caregivers in a simple, on-demand form. When I was looking for advice on caring for my Mom, I needed this podcast. Since it didn’t exist, I created what I needed!
Jen – pod host

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