Regular readers of our family of publications have heard us sound the alarm regarding the impact of stress on virtually every aspect of our health, from heart disease to cancer.
Recently, we’ve cast a particularly bright light on an ever-growing body of research linking stress and cognitive decline. We reported on a past study that found high levels of the stress hormone linked to memory loss.
And now a new cohort study, published in JAMA Network Open, drives home the point, underscoring the importance of managing stress.1
Let’s see what you can do to stave off the effects of stress like your brain depends on it… because it does!
For the study, researchers analyzed data from 24,500 people aged 45 and older who participated in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) national cohort study.
The results were quite clear-cut.
Stress Dampens Your Memory
The participants with higher levels of perceived stress were nearly 40 percent more likely to struggle with cognition than those who reported lower levels of stress.
The researchers were careful to adjust for other influences, such as cardiovascular risk factors, sociodemographic variables, and depression. But in the end, the findings were undeniable. The stressed-out people struggled more with learning new information, focusing, and remembering facts.
Lead study author Ambar Kulshreshtha, M.D., explains the significance of the findings. “The findings suggest the need for regular screening and targeted interventions for stress among older adults,” he says.
Dr. Kulshreshtha notes that because there are few treatments for dementia, prevention is particularly important.
The researchers suggested developing new screening programs to reveal signs of stress in older adults. In turn, healthcare professionals should offer recommendations to help people reduce stress and thereby lessen any cognitive fallout.
Understanding The Effects Of Stress
Your brain is a group of different parts that perform different tasks. And many researchers believe that when one part of your brain is busy working, the other parts of your brain may not have enough energy to handle their tasks.
For instance, if you’re in a dangerous or emotionally charged situation, the amygdala (which governs survival instincts) will kick into high gear. Unfortunately, this can leave the parts of your brain that store memories and perform complex cognitive tasks with less energy to get their jobs done.
According to Harvard Medical School, this may be why you’re forgetful when you’re stressed out or experience memory blips during traumatic events.2
“The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode,” explains Dr. Kerry Ressler, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The good news is that you can learn to manage stress better and, hopefully, prevent some of the damaging effects it can cause on the brain.
How To Save Your Brain From Stress
Here are some helpful strategies for protecting yourself from damaging stress.
- Find some control.If your stress is unpredictable, focus on controlling the things that are predictable. Dr. Ressler suggests having a healthy routine. Avoid agitating news and social media and limit your alcohol intake. In addition, schedule activities that bring you joy and laughter.
- Prioritize sleep.We all know that a stressful day can lead to a sleepless night, which can, in turn, cause more stress the next day. “Sleep deprivation makes parts of the brain that handle higher-order functions work less well,” says Dr. Ressler. Stick to healthy sleep habits, including going to bed and waking up at the same time daily, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon, leaving time to unwind, and creating a restful, device-less sleep environment.
- Connect with others.Talk to people you trust about your feelings. Counseling can be beneficial, as well. Reaching out can help you become more resilient and better able to manage stress.
Study author Dr. Kulshreshtha reminds us that, ultimately, “you have to recognize that stress is a problem.”
Other stress management tools include meditation or prayer, exercise, listening to music, playing with pets, aromatherapy, leisure activities and even napping. The idea is to take some time for yourself away from your biggest stressors so you can relax and calm your nervous system. Whichever stress management tools you choose, make sure to make them part of your daily routine because your memory depends on it.