Examining the role of stressful life events on cognition and determining mediating and moderating pathways among postmenopausal women

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BACKGROUND: Major life events, largely considered to be a source of great stress, are an inevitable process of the life span. Preliminary evidence suggests that the stress arising from major life events may serve as a risk factor for cognitive function decline. Evidence also indicates external (e.g., physical activity) and internal factors (i.e., psychological variables) can attenuate the physiologic effects of stress. Thus, there may be two important pathways through which stress affects health.

PURPOSE: The primary aim of this dissertation was to investigate the independent and interactive effects of stressful life events on cognitive function among a sample of postmenopausal women. In addition, the possible moderating and or mediating role of external and internal factors on the relationship between stressful life events and cognitive function were examined.

METHODS: Data from the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study, a randomly selected subset of the Women's Health Initiative Hormone Trial, were analyzed. To control for any treatment effects, only data from participants randomized into the placebo groups were pooled and used for all analyses, leaving a total of 3775participants. All participants had five data collections points, including baseline through four years of follow-up. Linear mixed effects models were used to answer all prospective research questions. Moderation and mediation models were used to determine presence of effect modification or mediation of external or internal variables.

RESULTS: Our results appear to indicate that there was a negative relationship between stressful life events and cognitive function scores. Reporting an ill spouse/partner was associated with lower cognition scores compared to those without reporting a spouse/partner (B = -0.68, p < 0.0001). Exposure to three or more stressful life events at every data collection period was also associated with lower cognitive function scores (B = -0.61, p = 0.021). External factors did not appear to moderate this negative relationship; however, internal factors such as optimism, hostility, and negative expressiveness did. Specifically, exposure to more stressful life events was associated with less favorable psychological states, which in turn, were associated with lower cognitive function scores.

CONCLUSION: Our results appear to lend support that exposure to certain life events and repeated exposure of stressful life events is associated with lower cognitive functioning. In addition, our findings provide modest evidence that psychological mechanisms are an important pathway through which stressful life events affect cognitive functioning over time among a representative sample of post-menopausal women. While stressful life events are largely unavoidable, the associated increased risk of cognitive function decline may be in part offset by various psychological factors.