Recent research discovers that our response to an even minor daily stressful situation, such as queuing for too long or getting stuck in traffic, can affect our brain health, particularly in old age.
Extended chronic stress can lead to an extensive range of hostile health concerns, from heart disease, diabetes, and sexual dysfunction, to mental health disorders, like burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and even schizophrenia.
Recent studies have proposed that high levels of cortisol which is a stress hormone may damage memory. But how do minor, everyday stressors affect the aging brain health?
A new study, led by Robert Stawski, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon’s State University in Corvallis, proposes that it is not so much the worrying events in themselves, but our responses to them that impair our cognitive health.
Especially, Stawski and colleagues observed how seniors’ response to normal stressors, such as a traffic jam, distresses their mental health. The findings are presented in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Studying stress and cognitive health
Stawski and team observed 111 seniors aged between 65 and 95 for 2.5 years. Throughout the research period, the scientists assessed the participants’ intellectual health by means of standardized assessments every 6 months.
Some of these assessments involved asking the seniors to look at two sets of numbers and then say if the same numbers appeared in the two sets, although in a different order. Preceding researches have submitted that performance in these tests is a display of so-called response time inconsistency, a marker of poor brain health and weakened cognitive processing.
Over the period of 2.5 years, the participants completed the training up to 30 times. The scientists also asked the participants to discourse about the stressors they had been subjected, also tell about the stressful situations experienced by their family members and close friends.
The seniors graded their feelings during a stressful instant by means of a range of positive and negative reactions, as well as a scale of intensity. Finally, participants also completed a worksheet on physical symptoms.
Stress response affects brain health
Generally, the research found that individuals whose reaction to everyday stressful situations involved more negative feelings and were of higher intensity had higher conflicts in their response time, proposing poorer intellectual focus and brain health.
The research also discovered noteworthy age differences. For example, the older members, those who were in their late 70s and up to 90s, were most affected. Specifically, their high-stress reactivity connected intensely with worse mental performance.
Conversely, those in their late 60s to mid-70s, more stress and anxiety appeared to benefit their mental health. “These comparatively younger participants may have a more energetic lifestyle to start with, more communal and professional engagement, which could improve their intellectual working,” Stawski wonders.
The study’s chief investigator further says that older seniors should pay more care to their emotional response to everyday stressful situations. And they should try to decrease their stress to preserve their mental health well into old age.
“We cannot get rid of regular stressors wholly,” Stawski says, “but endowing persons with the skills to withstand stressors when they occur could pay dividends in mental health.”
“These outcomes confirm that people’s everyday feelings and how they react to their stressors play a significant role in intellectual health. It’s not the stressor that pays to mental debilities, but how a person reacts that affects the intellect.”
In this context, cognition and brain health are very important, as the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are on the rise generally, together with the aging population.