Your responses to daily stress could strongly affect your brain health

In a new study, researchers found that taking typical daily annoyances such as a long wait at the doctor’s office or a traffic jam on the freeway in stride may help preserve brain health in older adults.

In contrast, emotional reactions could contribute to declines in cognition.

The study was conducted by the Oregon State University.

These findings confirm that people’s daily emotions and how they respond to their stressors play an important role in cognitive health.

It’s not the stressor itself that contributes to mental declines but how a person responds that affects the brain.

Brain health and cognition are important as we age. They contribute to one able to function in day-to-day life and can reflect diseases including dementia and Alzheimer’s.

In the current study, the researchers followed 111 older adults, ranging in age from 65 to 95, for 2½ years. Every six months, they participated in a series of cognitive assessments for six days over a two-week period.

During the assessments, participants looked at a series of two strings of numbers and were asked whether the same numbers appeared in the two strings, regardless of order.

Previous studies have linked fluctuations in how quickly people can do this exercise with decreased mental focus, cognitive aging, and risk for dementia as well as structural and functional brain changes that reflect poor cognitive health.

Each participant completed the numbers exercises for up to 30 sessions over the 2½-year period.

The participants also were asked about stressors experienced that day by themselves, a family member or a close friend; rated how they felt right at that moment, choosing from an array of positive and negative emotions and a range of intensity; and filled out a checklist of physical symptoms.

The team found that those who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions and reported a more dour mood, in general, showed greater fluctuations in their performance.

This suggests worse mental focus and cognitive health among the more strongly negative and reactive people.

But by following each person over time, the researchers also could track what happened on an individual basis, and striking age differences emerged.

For the oldest participants—late 70s to mid-90s—being more reactive to stressors than usual also contributed to worse cognitive performance.

In contrast, people in their late 60s to mid-70s actually did better on the test if they reported more stressors.

The team suggests that the relatively younger participants may have a more active lifestyle to begin with, more social and professional engagement, which could sharpen their mental functioning.

Older adults should be aware of their emotional reactions to stressful events and explore stress-lowering strategies, if needed, to preserve brain health and cognitive function.

The findings contribute to a growing body of research that focused on daily stress as a risk factor for compromised mental, physical and cognitive health.

The findings have vital real-world applications, given that the world’s fastest growing age group is adults 80 and over.

While it is impossible to get rid of daily stressors completely, endowing people with the skills to weather stressors when they happen could pay dividends in cognitive health.

Robert Stawski, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, is the study’s lead author.

The findings are published in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of American Psychosomatic Society.

Copyright © 2018 Knowridge Science Report. All rights reserved.

Source: Psychosomatic Medicine.