Sure, you know that stress can temporarily shortcircuit your memory (say, forgetting your PIN at the grocery store with a line of shoppers behind you), but a new Mayo Clinic study reveals that chronic stress in middle age can cause lasting memory impairment in women — but not men. Study author Cynthia Munro, PhD, explains that chronically elevated stress hormones damage the brain’s memory center, regardless of gender. But for women, the stress hormones combined with menopausal hormone flux make stress three times more damaging. “As a result, we become increasingly vulnerable to the negative effects,” she cautions. This may explain why nearly twice as many women over 60 develop Alzheimer’s as men.
While you can’t eliminate stress, you can protect your brain — without adding time-consuming to-do’s to your busy days, assures Munro. How? “Engage in activities that reduce the intensity of your response to stress. That can have a real effect on brain function as we age.”
Spend time with friends.
Adults with a large, diverse social circle at midlife are better able to withstand stress —even at high levels, according to a recent study at King’s College London. To get the perks, make room in your schedule for your favorite pals and forge new friendships by organizing a cookie swap or volunteering for the holiday toy drive at church.
“Spending time in a positive community of like-minded people is a wonderful way to boost your bliss hormones and reduce stress hormones,” says Daniel Amen, MD, author of The End of Mental Illness ($23.39, Amazon). “People who have close relationships live longer, are physically healthier and have a better memory.” Indeed, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that maintaining an active social life into your 70s and beyond lowers risk of cognitive decline by 70 percent.
To usher in relaxation, immerse yourself in an artistic activity by taking an ornament-making class or handcrafting holiday cards. In a study at Drexel University in Philadelphia, 75 percent of women who spent time being creative experienced a significant drop in stress hormones.
“Artistic activities help us feel in control,” says lead study author Girija Kaimal, EdD. “This promotes a sense of safety and well-being, which reduces stress.” Additionally, the mental exercise involved reverses age-related cellular damage, making the brain act younger and improving its stress resilience, according to German researchers. Your brain-protecting Rx: Aim for 15 minutes a day or one hour twice a week.
Enjoy active fun.
Here’s a great reason to take a stroll or throw snowballs with the little ones in your life: Any activity that increases your heart rate reduces chronic stress, reveals research in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. “Physical activity creates beneficial changes in the brain, soothing areas that get excited due to stress,” explains study author Eli Puterman, PhD.
Bonus: The same study found that regular physical activity also slows cellular aging by helping the body flush out old, damaged cells and replace them with healthier new cells. The result? A lower risk of Alzheimer’s and age-related mental decline. Start with at least 10 minutes of physical fun twice a week and work your way up to 30 minutes five times a week.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.