Stress is a bit of a double-edged sword, when it comes to the brain. “Acute” stress – the kind we experience when we narrowly avoid an accident or face an impending deadline – can actually improve memory, because it activates a surge of powerful hormones that increase the staying power of a memory. Strong emotions can also trigger strong memories. This is why so many people retain vivid memories of what they were doing when they first heard of the assassination of Jon F. Kennedy, or of the terrorist strike at the World Trade Centre. But these same hormones (called glucocorticoids) can damage the brain’s memory centre when they are overproduced, as when we are faced with chronic stress, or when the body fails to properly shut down their production, as can occur after a particularly traumatic event.
Managing stress is therefore an important facet of retaining a sense of control in our lives. Exercising and engaging in positive social interactions can help reduce stress, as can techniques such as biofeedback, meditation, relaxation therapy, or visual imagery. Recognising your limitations and prioritising your activities to ensure that you’re spending your time on the things that bring you pleasure and that are truly important to you can go a long way to reducing day-to-day stress.
Not getting enough sleep can be a common problem as we age. Drowsiness impairs memory, and studies indicate that a good night’s sleep is essential for the brain to consolidate newly acquired information into long-term learning. If you have consistent problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, and lack of sleep is interfering with your day on a regular basis, you should consider speaking with your doctor.
Practicing good “sleep hygiene” may help; here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation in the US:
- Consume less or no caffeine and avoid alcohol
- Drink fewer fluids before going to sleep
- Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime
- Avoid nicotine
- Exercise regularly, but do so in the daytime and not too close to bedtime
- Try a relaxing routine, like soaking in hot water (a hot tub or bath) before bedtime
- Establish a regular bedtime and wake-time schedule
Medications and supplements
Many common medications can negatively impact our brain, and older adults are more apt to be taking multiple pills that may have cross-reactions. Be sure all of your doctors know all of the drugs you are taking, as well as any vitamin or herbal supplements. If you notice a sudden change in mental status, especially if you’ve recently changed or added a medication, talk to your doctor about it. Prescription or over-the-counter drugs that more commonly cause adverse cognitive effects include anti-anxiety drugs (e.g. anxiolytics, anti-psychotics), antihistamines, sleeping aids, and anticholinergics (often used for asthma).
Alcohol and illicit drugs
Excessive alcohol consumption can interact negatively with prescription drugs, can cause sleep problems and has been associated with cognitive impairment and dementia. Older adults may be particularly susceptible to the adverse mental effects of excess alcohol as well as illicit drugs. Some studies have suggested that moderate drinking (e.g. a glass of wine daily) may have health benefits, including protection from cognitive decline and possibly Alzheimer’s. However, other studies contradict these findings, so the research is not clear-cut on the brain benefits of a drink or two a day.
Underlying health conditions
Clearly, neurological disease or injury (e.g. stroke, head trauma) can impact learning and memory processes, sometimes severely. Depression is the most common cause of reversible cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults, and can be treated effectively in the majority of people. There is also increasing evidence that cardiovascular disease impairs cognition, and that many of the risk factors associated with heart disease – particularly high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes – also increase the risk of cognitive problems. These conditions demand medical management. Any sudden change in mental functioning, particularly if it interferes with daily activities, warrants immediate medical evaluation by a qualified health care professional.
The material on this page “Brain Health – Manage Stress” has been used with the kind permission from the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. www.dana.org/stayingsharp