We need to understand what stress is, its potential negative impact on our health, and how to reduce its levels in our lives


The hidden enemy that threatens your brain

There’s stress in your life. It’s a reality for most of us. It begins when we wake up after a limited number of hours of interrupted sleep. We rush around getting ready for work, and instead of a good breakfast, we grab a piece of pizza from the fridge or skip breakfast entirely.

We begin answering emails or texts as we shave or put on make-up. Then, we yell at the kids to hurry up as we dress, and then spend frantic minutes searching for car keys. In the car, we turn on the radio and hear mostly bad news—another mass murder, a forecast of bad weather, more trouble for the economy. Obviously, work has its stressors, and afterward, who has time to relax?

Day after day, this stressful routine continues, and we wonder why our health suffers. What you may not realize is that stress and Alzheimer’s dementia are close family members. Subsequently, if we can reduce stress, cognition will improve. The relationship between stress reduction and improved cognition is not merely a theory; it is a proven fact. If we don’t reduce stress, eventually—and possibly sooner—we will pay the price in impaired cognitive function.

What is stress?

Stress begins with a danger (real or perceived). Perhaps you’ve lost sight of your toddler. Maybe an oncoming car has veered into your lane, or you realize you might be late to a job interview. In the case of my friend’s daughter, it just takes seeing a spider.

When your body senses danger, your brain sends out an alert that releases a surge of hormones. This surge includes adrenaline and cortisol. That alert triggers your stress response.

The adrenaline signals your heart to beat faster, your brain to receive an extra burst of oxygen, and your muscles to get more blood. Suddenly, adrenaline prompts a burst of energy so you can deal with the threat quickly and decisively.

The elevated cortisol turns down systems you don’t need, like the digestive and reproductive systems (among others). By doing so, you have extra resources to fight the danger. Also, the excess cortisol makes you less able to control your mood, complete tasks, and focus on anything except your fear.

In cases of acute stress, the danger goes away. You find your lost toddler, or you make it to your interview on time. Acute stress helps you deal with an immediate threat.

However, chronic stress does not merely go away. What’s more, your cortisol levels stay elevated. Eventually, it becomes a continual response to stimuli in your life.

Do you have a long commute to work? A troublesome colleague? An approaching deadline? A sullen daughter or angry son? Whenever stress continues unresolved, your body stays in a state of constant alert, and the added stress damages your health.

How to reduce your stress

Let’s assume that you first remove obvious stressors from your life. Fortunately, the following techniques will help you deal with the other stressors—the ones that linger in your life:

    • Increase your sense of control – Regardless of the stressor, you can choose how you respond. This choice will help you develop greater self-control, and your stress will diminish.
    • Exercise – Danger often requires a “fight or flight” response. Chronic stress comes from being unable to do either. An exercise routine provides a safe facsimile of the flight response, one that will turn down your cortisol. Aerobic exercise is especially good.
    • Stop smoking – Nicotine is a stimulant.
    • Meditation – This is so important to your overall cognitive health that I have a separate section devoted to it. For now, remember, meditation takes you out of yourself, out of the time and place where you are, and into a place of calm and peace; your stress will decrease, and you’ll begin to look forward to periods of serenity.

More information is available

I provide more information on how to reduce your stress and its relationship to Alzheimer’s dementia on my Interact Well Care website. Additionally, more details on this subject are available in my book, Dementia Action Plan: How to Give Your Brain a Fighting Chance.

You can ignore the stress in your life, or allow it to continue unchecked. If you do, your health, including your cognitive health, will suffer.  Start taking steps now to reduce the stressors in your life. Moreover, your body and your brain will reap the benefits.