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Learn to Manage Stress Now to Help Preserve Memory and Thinking Skills Later in Life: Chronic stress can interfere with cognition, dampen your mood, and take a toll on the health of the heart and the rest of the body.

The mental and physical consequences of stress are plentiful. Unchecked stress can lead to memory and thinking skills problems, as well as physical and emotional symptoms such as headaches, muscle and chest pain, sleep problems, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, depression and lifestyle changes that can include less exercise, less socializing, and sometimes more drug and alcohol use.

"Increasingly, people are starting to take more notice of the connections between stress and long-term health problems," says Gregory Fricchione, MD, associate chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. Several studies in recent years have found a strong association between ongoing stress or exposure to stressful events earlier in one's life and cognitive decline or higher rates of depression and anxiety later on.

But the upside to this growing understanding of the role of stress in our mental, emotional, and physical health is a similar increase in awareness of how stress-relief strategies not only can help you relax, but can start to undo some of that stress-induced harm. For example, an estimated 55 million people in the United States now practice yoga, up from about 15 million a just a decade ago. And nearly a third of current yoga practitioners are age 50 or older.

But yoga is just one way people are finding to manage stress, which is, simply put, how the brain and body respond to a demand.

A Little Stress Is Good

Everyone experiences some stress in life. It's a survival response. "Some stress is required for healthy living," Dr. Fricchione explains, adding that stress prepares us for the challenges of the day, whether it's heightened alertness when driving in heavy traffic or the added motivation to finish a project on deadline.

That means there is good stress and bad stress. People who get job promotions or find out they're going to be grandparents have much good news to celebrate. But those life changes can bring on stresses of their own. Are you ready for these changes? How will your life be different?

Negative stressors, such as a serious illness diagnosis, a car breaking down, or even an annoying neighbor, can have you asking questions about how you'll cope and what will come next.

When your body is under stress--good or bad--a few things happen. The body releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which produce physiological changes to help you cope with a perceived threat. It's called the "stress response" or the "fight-or-flight response," and the changes include more rapid heart and respiratory rates, muscle tension, and higher blood pressure.

Once a perceived threat has passed, the body usually responds accordingly. Hormone levels return to normal and the other physical responses also return to their normal states. But when stressors are constant or you feel you are constantly threatened, you can experience chronic stress, which means the body never quite returns to its normal, relaxed state.

Chronic stress can lead to aches and pains from prolonged muscle tension, heartburn, hypertension, insomnia, a weakened immune system, and other consequences that can have far-reaching impacts on your physical health and wellbeing. The mental and emotional consequences can be just as devastating.

Stress, Memory and Mood

When you're feeling stressed, you may be aware that you have trouble concentrating or recalling information that otherwise comes easily to mind. Part of that may be explained by examining what's going on in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated chiefly with memory. It's also the region that makes new brain cells to replace those that die--a process called neurogenesis.

"It turns out that neurogenesis is affected by too much cortisol," Dr. Fricchione says. "If you have too much stress, you have a reduction in the memory structure of the brain. Fortunately, a lot of that is reversible when you get your stress under control."

Stress, even short-term bouts of it, can also impair the communication between brain cells. A recent study found that inflammation driven by chronic stress can also disrupt the connections between neurons and result in depressive symptoms. Part of this mechanism is related to the harmful impact stress can have on the body's immune response. Over time, stress can lead to depression or anxiety.

In the short term, as you may have observed in your own life or in the behavior of others, stressful episodes are often revealed through irritability, impatience, anger or sadness.

Find What Helps You Relax

So what can you do to undo stress-related injuries to your memory and mood? Well, there is no one-size-fits-all cure for stress. However, getting more exercise on a regular basis is considered a fairly universal and effective treatment to lower stress levels. The type of exercise isn't nearly as important as the commitment to being active all or most days of the week. Whether it's tennis, swimming, jogging, walking, yoga, waltzing, or tai chi, the key is simply to move your muscles to relax your brain. The distraction of exercise, sports or any enjoyable activity that demands your time and energy can help protect against life's stressors, even if just for short bursts. Exercise also encourages the release of stress-reducing endorphins in the brain, and it helps improve your sleep.

And speaking of sleep, make seven to eight hours of sleep a night a priority. If you have to invest in a new mattress, consider it money well spent. Insufficient sleep is one of the leading causes of chronic stress, but its often a factor that can be managed with life-style changes and a focus on improving your sleep hygiene.

Other simple strategies that may help lower your stress levels include:

* Yoga: Find a beginner's class so you won't feel intimidated.

* Breathing exercises: Focused breathing can bring down stress levels and blood pressure.

* Muscle relaxation: Spend a few minutes a day focusing on relaxing all your muscle groups one at a time.

* Massage: Research has shown massage to be beneficial in treating anxiety and the physical symptoms of stress, such as muscle pain, headaches, and insomnia.

* Meditation: Guided meditations that help you ignore or better handle life's stressors can be found in in-person meditation classes and online or as smartphone apps.

* Journaling: Writing about the things that worry or bother you can sometimes help you see them in a new light and with a perspective that makes them seem more manageable.

* New hobbies: Learning to play a musical instrument or dance or paint or any other activity that you find interesting and rewarding can go a long way in reducing your stress levels.

* Laugh: Research published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that laughter can help improve stress levels and cardiovascular health while reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

* Pets: A 2019 study found that simply petting a dog or cat for just 10 minutes was associated with a reduction in cortisol levels.

But if you're someone whose stress levels can't be helped by adding a pet to the family or journaling, consider talking about your feelings with a psychologist or other mental health professional. You learn relaxation strategies and how to find a healthier perspective on the stressors in your life.

Boosting BDNF

One other area that is getting a lot of attention from researchers looking for stress busters is a protein found in the brain and the peripheral nervous system. It's called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and it's a type of neurotrophin, a protein involved in the development and survival of new brain cells.

Among other functions, BDNF is a key player in long-term memory formation and the regulation of mood, i.e., stress management.

"BDNF helps the hippocampus make new brain cells," Dr. Fricchione says. "That's where a lot of this science is headed." And what's especially encouraging is that you can actually increase your BDNF levels.

Not surprisingly, the list of relaxation helpers coincides with ways to boost your BDNF levels. "There are many ways to increase BDNF levels," Dr. Fricchione says. "Exercise is one way to reduce anxiety and depression, while improving cognitive functioning and increasing BDNF."

He also notes that "environmental enrichment" has been shown to raise BDNF levels. That includes more social interactions and intellectual activities, such as museum visits and participation in the arts. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in refined sugar helps, too.

Having a home that is less cluttered and spending more time with people who buoy you rather than bring you down are also ways to, as Dr. Fricchione says, "act as buffers against the downsides of persistent stress."
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Date:Jan 30, 2020

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