Prevention: Stress Reduction
One of the more recent developments in the understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is the role stress plays in how our brains age. We all know stress is not good for our bodies, and we also now know more about the role stress can have on our brain health.
Research has shown that chronic stress changes the brain. When we feel stress, our body produces an excess of cortisol, a stress hormone. This excess can impact the brain’s ability to store memories. Long-term stress can lead to elevated levels of cortisol in the blood stream, which has a negative effect on brain health. Some studies have shown the stress hormones in patients with Alzheimer’s disease are two to three times higher. And persistent activation of stress hormones appears to cause shrinkage of the hippocampus, one of the first parts of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease. This research has determined that stress is significant to the aging brain.
In addition to ordinary stress, there are more significant stressful events that can happen in our lifetime. Experiences like the death of a loved one, illness, poverty or bankruptcy, divorce, domestic abuse, and more can cause extreme stress. Some people experience more of these events than others. One study examining lifetime stress and cognition at University of Wisconsin-Madison found, on average, the African American people in the study experienced 60 percent more significant life stressful events. The impact of these events could mean the equivalent of four years of cognitive aging.
Further studies are being done to examine the role of stress and stress reduction in brain health. Researchers also are examining why some people experience significant stress, but do not experience corresponding memory loss. While there may not be ways to stop significant lifetime stressors from occurring, there are ways to reduce stress and to help protect our brains from stress.
Social networks can help protect us from the stress we experience. Being able to chat with a friend or talk about a stressful day can help us process stressful experiences. We can learn to reduce stress by managing our time and allowing time for stress relief. It’s important to prioritize stress reduction and schedule activities we find relaxing. Mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, deep breathing, and prayer can reduce stress. Physical activity, playing or listening to music, dancing, and laughter can help reduce stress. Even simple, relaxing routines like taking a bubble bath, writing in a journal, or watching a favorite comedy show can provide stress relief.