What is Americans’ biggest health concern? Not heart disease, or stroke or diabetes; it’s fear of losing memory according to a recent survey. And what factor affecting memory do people feel is rising each year? Stress, said almost 40% of those surveyed for a report by the American Psychological Association. Emerging scientific evidence suggests that memory and stress are intimately tied together. In fact, we may be our own worst enemy when it comes to memory loss because we don’t manage our increasing levels of daily life stress.
Stress, whether caused by external events or by internal thought processes, can have a negative effect on the brain and its health; for many of us, stress is an unavoidable fact of life. However, learning how to deal with stress and how to eliminate prolonged stress as much as possible will boost your brain health and build resilience against mental decline.
Not all stress poses a problem; our bodies are designed to combat short-term stress (minutes and hours) by releasing the hormone cortisol to help us manage a threatening situation. That response is rooted in basic survival instincts; the fight-or-flight choice faced when being chased by wild animals. We humans have stress systems that are useful and effective when a fast response is needed.
Chronic stress = Brain Cell Death
However, our bodies and our brains are not equipped to maintain the chronic stress (days and weeks without relief) that the 21st century man and woman live with every day.
Stress causes measurable brain shrinkage in otherwise healthy individuals. Instead of a burst of a stress hormone to tackle a looming situation, most people have chronically elevated levels of cortisol, the hormone that is released in the brain as a stress response. These increased levels drastically affect the brain and your mental performance, especially memory. A continuous dose of cortisol damages the brain’s hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory) and eventually leads to brain cell death. High stress levels also contribute to frustration, sickness, poor sleep and reduced creativity.
Remember short-term periods of stress can enhance brain performance and brain health leading to improved concentration, memory, planning, decision-making and alertness. However, chronic, unending, negative stress has damaging effects that can mimic early dementia.
Much of the downside of brain performance is related to our choices and what we do or don’t do to keep our brains healthy each day. So do all you can to reduce your stress and protect your memory.
Reducing stress is key to maximizing your brain’s performance.
So how do you do it?
- Get out and exercise. Aerobic, physical exercise leads to the birth of new neurons and strengthens connections between brain regions. It also increases brain blood flow to the hippocampus and releases endorphins, the mood-boosting hormones.
- Think positive. Reframe habitual patters where you relive something negative over and over again; such thinking patterns are believed to strengthen unhealthy memories and brain connections.
- Change your environment. If your environment is the cause of your stress, do something to reset your brain. For example: Take a walk outside in th fresh air, step away from technology for a brief period, or eliminate unnecessary distractions.
- Have a support system. Make a list of people you can turn to for advice or just to vent.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep can lower stress levels, plus your brain finds new insights into problems that may be causing stress when it is at rest.
by Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D