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Neuroticism and Alzheimer's

Story at-a-glance -

  • Women who scored highest on a test for neuroticism were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than women with the lowest scores
  • Women who were both the most neurotic and the least extroverted had the highest risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • The distress associated with neuroticism is likely what’s driving its tie to Alzheimer’s, as chronic stress has long been linked to dementia and cognitive decline
  • Elevated levels of cortisol, one of your body’s stress hormones, affect your memory by causing a gradual loss of synapses in your prefrontal cortex -- the brain region associated with short-term memory
  • Your diet is also very important; being very strict in limiting your consumption of sugar and non-vegetable carbs, while increasing healthy fat, is one of THE most important steps you can take to prevent Alzheimer's disease

Worry and Obsession Linked to Alzheimer's Risk

October 16, 2014 | 102,278 views

By Dr. Mercola

Are you often anxious, fearful, and moody? Do you worry often or have feelings of envy, jealousy, and loneliness? These are characteristics of neuroticism, a personality trait might increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease significantly.

The association between neuroticism and Alzheimer’s later in life was so strong that researchers suggested people with such traits seek cognitive behavioral therapy to help reduce their risk.

It’s not that being neurotic directly causes Alzheimer’s. However, it certainly increases your stress levels and may drive you to engage in unhealthy behaviors, like smoking, which further increase your risk.

As cases of Alzheimer’s continue to rise, the finding is actually good news, because if you tend to worry excessively you can do something about it now rather than later.

Being Neurotic May Double Your Risk of Alzheimer’s

Women who scored highest on a test for neuroticism were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than women with the lowest scores, the new study found.1

Women who were extroverted, meanwhile, had a lower degree of long-term distress, and while this wasn’t directly applicable to Alzheimer’s, the research found women who were both the most neurotic and the least extroverted had the highest risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The implication is that the distress associated with neuroticism is likely what’s driving its tie to Alzheimer’s, and this was shown in a previous study conducted by the same researchers last year.

That study found that women who faced common psychosocial stressors often experienced long-standing distress, and were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, than those who did not.

The stressors included in the study were divorce, widowhood, work problems or illness in a relative… hurdles that many people must overcome in their lives.

Stress Is Well Known to Promote Dementia

The connection between neuroticism and Alzheimer’s isn’t surprising, because this type of personality is a harbinger for chronic stress. Studies have found links between acute and/or chronic stress and a wide variety of health issues, including your brain function.

Most recently, an animal study reveals that higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.2 The findings indicate that how your body responds to stress may be a factor that influences how your brain ages over time. As reported by Business Standard:3

"[R]ats with high levels of the stress hormone corticosterone showed structural changes in the brain and short-term memory deficits… older animals with higher levels of stress hormones in their blood have 'older' frontal cortexes than animals with less stress hormones, thus, stress may act as a pacemaker of aging in this key brain region."

Previous research has also linked chronic stress with working memory impairment.4 Other recent research suggests that stress may even act as a trigger for or speed up the onset of Alzheimer's disease, which currently afflicts about 5.4 million Americans, including one in eight people aged 65 and over.5

Specifically, 72 percent—nearly three out of four—Alzheimer's patients have experienced severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis.6 In the control group for the study, only 26 percent, or one in four, had undergone major stress or grief. Most of the stresses encountered by the Alzheimer's group involved:

  • Bereavement; death of a spouse, partner, or child
  • Violent experiences, such as assault or robbery
  • Car accidents
  • Financial problems, including "pension shock"
  • Diagnosis of a family member's severe illness

Normalizing Your Cortisol Levels Might Help Protect Your Brain

Elevated levels of cortisol, one of your body’s stress hormones, affect your memory by causing a gradual loss of synapses in your prefrontal cortex. This is the brain region associated with short-term memory.

Cortisol—a stress hormone—basically has a "corrosive" effect, over time wearing down the synapses responsible for memory storage and processing. According to researchers:7

"Short-term increases in cortisol are critical for survival. They promote coping and help us respond to life's challenges by making us more alert and able to think on our feet.

But abnormally high or prolonged spikes in cortisol—like what happens when we are dealing with long-term stress—can lead to negative consequences that numerous bodies of research have shown to include digestion problems, anxiety, weight gain, and high blood pressure."

The researchers suggest that you may be able to protect your future memory function by normalizing your cortisol levels. Such intervention would be particularly beneficial for those who are at high risk for elevated cortisol, such as those who show traits of neuroticism, are depressed or are dealing with long-term stress following a traumatic event.

For this, I highly recommend the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). It's an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body's reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects.

For a demonstration, please see the following video featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman, in which she discusses EFT for stress relief. For serious or deep-seated emotional problems, I strongly recommend seeing an experienced EFT therapist, as there is a significant art to the process that requires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to be successfully treated.

Did You Know a High-Carb Diet Increases Your Risk of Dementia by 89 Percent?

Stress certainly should be kept to a minimum to protect your health in all facets as you age. Yet, this is only one piece of a complex puzzle. Your diet also plays a very important role. In fact, neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, MD insists that being very strict in limiting your consumption of sugar and non-vegetable carbs is one of THE most important steps you can take to prevent Alzheimer's disease. He cites research from the Mayo Clinic, which found that diets rich in carbohydrates are associated with an 89 percent increased risk for dementia. Meanwhile, high-fat diets are associated with a 44 percent reduced risk. According to Dr. Perlmutter:

"[Alzheimer's] is a preventable disease. It surprises me at my core that no one's talking about the fact that so many of these devastating neurological problems are, in fact, modifiable based upon lifestyle choices… What we've crystallized it down to now, in essence, is that diets that are high in sugar and carbohydrates, and similarly diets that are low in fat, are devastating to the brain.

When you have a diet that has carbohydrates in it, you are paving the way for Alzheimer's disease. I want to be super clear about that. Dietary carbohydrates lead to Alzheimer's disease. It's a pretty profound statement, but it's empowering nonetheless when we realize that we control our diet. We control our choices, whether to favor fat or carbohydrates."

His book, Grain Brain, reveals how and why sugars and carbohydrates destroy your brain, and how to eat for neurological health. The combination of very little sugar and carbs, along with higher amounts of healthy fats is KEY for addressing not only Alzheimer's, but diabetes and heart disease as well. All of these conditions are rooted in insulin and leptin resistance, and the dietary answer is identical for all of them.

If Your Blood Sugar Is Even a Little High, You’re at an Increased Risk of Dementia

Download Interview Transcript

The importance of a healthy diet cannot be overstated, as a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that even mild elevation of blood sugar—a level of around 105 or 110—was already dramatically associated with an elevated risk for developing dementia.8 Dr. Perlmutter believes it's very important for physicians to become cognizant of this link, and to stop downplaying the risks associated with even mildly elevated blood sugar.

If your fasting blood sugar is even mildly elevated (over 95 mg/dl), it's time to address your diet to lower it. Dr. Perlmutter makes a very important point here, noting that "normal" blood sugar really should not be the same as the average. It should be the optimal or ideal level. You do not want to be right smack in the middle "average" when the population sample is severely diseased! So what is an ideal fasting blood sugar level? Dr. Perlmutter suggests that anything over 92 or 93 is too high. He believes the ideal fasting blood sugar level is around 70-85, with 95 as the maximum. If you're fat adapted, there's no reason to shun even lower fasting blood sugar levels. According to Dr. Perlmutter:

"It really depends on whether you have adapted your body to burning fat. People who have been on a high-fat, low-carb diet are able to tap into body fat as an energy resource. They've undergone a change called keto-adaptation. It means they're burning fat and they can get by with much lower blood sugar because they're burning fat and don't need to worry about blood sugar as much.

This notion that your brain needs sugar is really old news as well. Fat, specifically ketones, which your body produces by metabolizing your fat, is now called a 'brain superfuel.' There is even a pharmaceutical product; a medical food that you can write as a prescription, which raises the level of ketones or fat in the bloodstream of patients, offered up now as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Who knew? The point is the brain loves to burn fat. That's what we have to shift it over to..."

One of the tools I've found particularly useful here is intermittent fasting, which can really help jumpstart your body into burning fat instead of carbs as its primary fuel. In his book, Grain Brain, Dr. Perlmutter also starts off the intervention section with a period of fasting, which can be viewed as pressing the Reset button. He's particularly aggressive about it in patients who are insulin/leptin resistant. 

So What’s the ‘Recipe’ for Healthy Brain Function?

According to Dr. Perlmutter, fat avoidance and carbohydrate overconsumption are at the heart of the Alzheimer's epidemic. To learn more about how you can protect your brain health by eliminating non-vegetable carbs from your diet, I highly recommend reading his book, Grain Brain. In order to reverse the Alzheimer's trend, we simply must relearn how to eat for optimal health. Processed "convenience foods" are quite literally killing us, inducing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.

The beauty of following my optimized nutrition plan is that it helps prevent and treat virtually ALL chronic degenerative diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. Other lifestyle factors, particularly stress relief, sun exposure and exercise, are also potent allies against all forms of dementia. Ideally, you'll want to carefully review the suggested guidelines below and take steps to incorporate as many of them as you can into your daily lifestyle. The sooner you begin, the better.

Dietary Strategies to Help Prevent Alzheimer’s

  • Avoid sugar and refined fructose. Ideally, you'll want to keep your sugar levels to a minimum and your total fructose below 25 grams per day, or as low as 15 grams per day if you have insulin/leptin resistance or any related disorders.
  • Avoid gluten and casein (primarily wheat and pasteurized dairy, but not dairy fat, such as butter). Research shows that your blood-brain barrier is negatively affected by gluten. Gluten also makes your gut more permeable, which allows proteins to get into your bloodstream, where they don't belong. That then sensitizes your immune system and promotes inflammation and autoimmunity, both of which play a role in the development of Alzheimer's.
  • Optimize your gut flora by regularly eating fermented foods or taking a high-potency and high-quality probiotic supplement.
  • Increase consumption of all healthy fats, including animal-based omega-3. Sources of healthy fat include avocados, butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk, organic pastured egg yolks, coconuts and coconut oil, raw nuts, raw dairy, grass-fed meats, and pasture-raised poultry. Also make sure you're getting enough animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. High intake of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA help by preventing cell damage caused by Alzheimer's disease, thereby slowing down its progression, and lowering your risk of developing the disorder.
  • Reduce your overall calorie consumption, and/or intermittently fast. Ketones are mobilized when you replace carbs with coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats. As mentioned above intermittent fasting is a powerful tool to jumpstart your body into remembering how to burn fat and repair the inulin/leptin resistance that is also a primary contributing factor for Alzheimer's. To learn more, please see this previous article.
  • Improve your magnesium levels. There is some exciting preliminary research strongly suggesting a decrease in Alzheimer's symptoms with increased levels of magnesium in the brain. Unfortunately, most magnesium supplements do not pass the blood-brain barrier.
  • Eat a nutritious diet, rich in folate. Vegetables, without question, are your best form of folate, and we should all eat plenty of fresh raw veggies every day. Avoid supplements like folic acid, which is the inferior synthetic version of folate.

General Lifestyle Guidelines for Alzheimer's Prevention

Besides diet, there are a number of other lifestyle factors that can contribute to or hinder neurological health. The following strategies are therefore also important for any Alzheimer's prevention plan:

  • Exercise regularly. It's been suggested that exercise can trigger a change in the way the amyloid precursor protein is metabolized,9 thus, slowing down the onset and progression of Alzheimer's. Exercise also increases levels of the protein PGC-1alpha. Exercise also leads to hippocampus growth and memory improvement.10 I would strongly recommend reviewing the Peak Fitness Technique for my specific recommendations. Also, be sure to do regular walking. New studies suggest you need between 7,000-10,000 steps a day, in addition to your high-intensity exercise, to stay healthy.
  • Optimize your vitamin D levels with safe sun exposure. Strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer's patients and poor outcomes on cognitive tests have been revealed. Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of the glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health. Vitamin D may also exert some of its beneficial effects on Alzheimer's through its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Sufficient vitamin D (50-70 ng/ml) is imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation that is also associated with Alzheimer's.
  • Avoid and eliminate mercury from your body. Dental amalgam fillings, which are 50 percent mercury by weight, are one of the major sources of heavy metal toxicity, however you should be healthy prior to having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my optimized nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a biological dentist to have your amalgams removed.
  • Avoid and eliminate aluminum from your body. Sources of aluminum include antiperspirants, non-stick cookware, vaccine adjuvants, etc. For tips on how to detox aluminum, please see my article, "First Case Study to Show Direct Link between Alzheimer's and Aluminum Toxicity."
  • Avoid flu vaccinations as most contain both mercury and aluminum, well-known neurotoxic and immunotoxic agents.
  • Avoid anticholinergics and statin drugs. Drugs that block acetylcholine, a nervous system neurotransmitter, have been shown to increase your risk of dementia. These drugs include certain nighttime pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers. Statin drugs are particularly problematic because they suppress the synthesis of cholesterol, deplete your brain of coenzyme Q10 and neurotransmitter precursors, and prevent adequate delivery of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble antioxidants to your brain by inhibiting the production of the indispensable carrier biomolecule known as low-density lipoprotein.
  • Challenge your mind daily. Mental stimulation, especially learning something new, such as learning to play an instrument or a new language, is associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers suspect that mental challenge helps to build up your brain, making it less susceptible to the lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease.

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