Guest Blog Post from Bob on Aging Well
Short answer: Stress has a major negative impact on brain health. There is good news: Stress management is one of your most important strategies to reduce the odds of premature brain aging.
Chronic stress, a perennial villain
We are not talking about the immediate response to a stressor, such as a car swerving into your lane, or running a stop light. The immediate adrenal rush triggers sweaty palms, a rapid heart rate, nervousness and a queasy stomach. Symptoms like these tend to go away after the crisis disappears. No harm done.
With chronic stress, you keep the stress response turned on. Imagine experiencing stage fright day after day - not good! Chronic stress nibbles away at your energy and health, robbing you of energy and optimism.
How can you tell if you have chronic stress?
At the end of the day, are you too frazzled for self-care practices? Do you end up telling yourself: “I’m too tired to meditate,” or “I don’t have enough time to exercise?” Do you head to the fridge for a snack, instead of going for a walk?
Does an old worry keep you awake at night? Perhaps it's a money problem. According to the latest stress survey by the American Psychological Association, money is the number one stressor among working adults.
Perhaps chronic stress reflects expectations and obligations? Is there competition between your head saying you ‘should’ attend an event and your heart saying, ‘Don’t do it! You are maxed out at home and at work?'
Chronic stress: bad news for the brain
Chronic stress shrinks the brain. Whatever the cause, chronic stress alters nerve center connections, leading to decreased memory and thinking (cognitive impairment.) And that’s not all: Chronic stress also increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancer.
Too much stress alters nerve growth and repair, and changes connections between different brain centers. As an example, we know that overproduction of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can alter fragile connections between the hippocampus, which regulates memory and emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for wisdom and judgment.
Can the brain heal itself?
The brain does not stop developing after childhood. Research in animals and humans suggests that brain structure can change and adapt throughout the lifespan (a phenomenon called neuroplasticity).
It is not clear which brain mechanisms can be repaired. However, neuroscientists recommend as a baseline at least two approaches that may promote neuroplasticity and a stronger brain: regular physical exercise and effective stress management.
So it’s not too late to nurture your brain!
Take a minute today and check-in to see how you are doing:
• Does your physical activity program incorporate regular flexibility, strength and endurance? If not, what one step can you take this week to take it up a notch?
• Are your stress relief strategies robust enough (deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga, prayer, service, etc.) to reverse chronic stress?
Commitment to these practices will, over time, help keep your brain at peak performance. Please remember that perhaps as much as 50% of premature brain aging is under your control.
Thanks for reading and take care of yourself,
Robert A. Ronzio, Ph.D.
Biomedical Researcher, Educator, Board Certified Nutritionist
Author: Encyclopedia of Nutrition and Good Health