Brain aging is a hot topic these days, especially for women. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.8 million people over age 65 are currently living with the disease, women being almost twice as likely to get Alzheimer's than men. And new research suggests there could be a link between our mid-life stress levels and brain function in our later years that we need to be paying attention to.
A new study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry was originally conducted to determine the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in the U.S., but the researchers found a surprising off-subject conclusion. Data on recent traumatic events (like getting attacked or mugged) and prolonged stressful life experiences (like divorce or having a child) was collected from 909 people, 63 percent of which were women, four times between the 1980s and 2005. The results showed that a greater number of recent stressful life experiences during the third wave of assessment (at which point the average age of participants was 47) was associated with greater memory decline by the final assessment in women, but interestingly, not in men.
Another interesting note: While on-going stressful life experience seemed to have an effect on mental decline, researchers didn’t find much correlation between traumatic events and cognitive decline. While researchers cautioned that they were not out to determine causation of cognitive decline, these results point to some important findings about how chronic stress could specifically be affecting our brain health.
Of the findings, lead author of the study Cynthia Munro said, “A normal stress response causes a temporary increase in stress hormones like cortisol, and when it's over, levels return to baseline and you recover. But with repeated stress, or with enhanced sensitivity to stress, your body mounts an increased and sustained hormone response that takes longer to recover.”
So, what can you do about it? High levels of chronic stress have also been linked to problems within the cardiovascular system and beyond, so stress management is coming into the spotlight more than ever these days. It’s clear that stress can affect our bodies in more ways than one, but luckily, there are things that you can do to manage your stress on a daily basis and improve your health.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of stress like insomnia, worried/anxious/depressive thoughts, weight gain, headaches, or muscle tension, mindfulness practices can go along way. Mindfulness refers to the process of drawing one’s attention back into the present moment, rather than being swept away by nagging, negative thoughts. Meditation is a great tool for practicing mindfulness, and one Harvard review of 47 clinical trials on meditation concluded that a simple meditation practice can reduce symptoms of stress in as little as 8 weeks.
If you find it hard to sit quietly and observe the fluctuations of your mind, you can also try a walking meditation. To practice, simply go for a walk for 10 minutes or more and simply observe your surroundings, taking in the sensory experiences of your environment like sounds, sights, and smells. If you tend to find yourself unable to wind down at night, try this easy yoga sequence that will help you tame cortisol, relax tense muscles, and drift off to sleep.