How You React to Stress May Predict Brain Health

 New research finds that our response to even minor daily stressors, such as getting stuck in traffic or waiting too long at the supermarket, can affect how healthy our brain is, particularly into old age.

Prolonged chronic stress can lead to a wide range of adverse health consequences, from diabetes and heart disease, to mental health conditions, such as depression, burn-out, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even schizophrenia.  Zooming in on the effects that stress has on the brain, recent studies have suggested that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol may impair memory.

How do small daily stressors affect the brain?  New research, led by Robert Stawski, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon’s State University in Corvallis, suggests that it is not so much the stressful events in themselves, but our reactions to them that harm our brain health.

One study, done during a 2.5 years period, examined senior’s cognitive health using standardized assessments every 6 months.  Some of these assessments included asking the seniors to look at two sets of numbers and then say if the same numbers appeared in the two sets, even if not in the same order.  Overall, the study found that people whose response to daily stressors involved more negative emotions and were of higher intensity had higher inconsistencies in their response time, suggesting poorer mental focus and brain health.

The research revealed significant age differences.  For instance, the older participants-those in their late 70’s to early 90’s-were most affected.  That is, the higher the stress reaction, the less cognitive function.

However, for those in their late 60’s to mid 70’s, more stress seemed to benefit cognitive health in some cases.  These people may have had a more active life-style to begin with, or more social and professional engagement, which sharpens mental function.

The results confirm that people’s daily emotions and how they react to stress will affect brain health and function.  It’s not the stressor that contributes to mental declines, but how a person responds that affects the brain.


*The finding s in this study are available in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.

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