Vital exhaustion, a kind of emotional collapse, is further defined as excessive fatigue, feelings of demoralization, and increased irritability. Vital exhaustion has been identified as a risk factor for cardiac events. In a previous study, probabilities of adverse cardiac events over time were significantly higher in people with high vital exhaustion compared to those with low exhaustion (p = 0.002).

A recent study suggests that vital exhaustion, or psychological distress, is also a risk factor for future risk of dementia. Currently, an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffer from severe dementia, and another 1 to 5 million people experience mild to moderate dementia.

Five to 8 percent of people over the age of 65 have some form of dementia, and the number doubles every five years over age 65. The prevalence of dementia has increased over the past few decades, either because of greater awareness and more accurate diagnosis, or because increased longevity has created a larger elderly population.

Researchers from the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen have, in collaboration with the National Research Centre for the Working Environment, and the Danish Dementia Research Centre, noted that the physiological stress response, including cardiovascular changes and excessive production of cortisol over a prolonged period, may act as the mechanism linking psychological distress with an increased risk of dementia.

In this study, the researchers used data from 6,807 participants attending the third survey of the Copenhagen City Heart Study in 1991-1994. Vital exhaustion was assessed by 17 symptoms (score: 0–17) from the Maastricht Questionnaire.

Information on dementia was obtained from national registers. Risk time for dementia was counted from five years after vital exhaustion assessment for participants 55 years and older at the time of the assessment. For younger participants, risk time for dementia was counted from the year they turned 60 years and onwards. Participants were followed until 2016. Poisson regression was used to calculate incidence rate ratios (IPR) and their 95 percent confidence intervals (CI).

During an average follow-up of 10 years, 872 participants were registered with dementia. The researchers found a dose-response relation between the number of vital exhaustion symptoms and the incidence of dementia.

For every additional vital exhaustion symptom, the dementia incidence increased by 2 percent (IRR = 1.024; 95 percent CI: 1.004-1.043). Adjustment for socio-demographic and health-related factors did not change the results substantially, nor did stratification by age, sex, educational level, and marital status.

Stress can have severe and harmful consequences for general health as well as brain health. This study indicates that researchers can further explore preventative measures for dementia by addressing associated psychological.