Yet Another Reason to Reduce Stress: It Damages Memory
If you’ve ever lived with chronic stress—and how many of us haven’t, at some point—you probably already know this. If you haven’t, it might be a surprise. And if you’ve lived with ongoing stress for a very long time, you might not even realize how it’s affecting you. Whatever your situation, here’s the newest thing science is telling us about stress: it damages your memory.
If you’ve ever been the parent of small children or cared for an ailing relative long-term you’re probably already familiar with what I like to call “caregiver dementia.” It goes by many other names. Some people call it “brain fog.” Older people may call it “having a senior moment.” But it all boils down to the same thing—stress-induced short-term memory loss. And at long last, science is finally admitting that it really happens. More than that, scientists now think they might even know why.
Here’s what happens to your brain when you’re stressed
Short-term stress—or acute stress—isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Your body’s stress response is intended to get you out of a dangerous situation and do it as quickly as possible. Short-term stress can give you the boost you need to go the extra mile, stay up the extra hour, or lift that extra twenty pounds. Short-term stress can sharpen your focus and make time seem to slow down.
When you experience acute stress, your body is flooded with hormones that give you that extra boost. And when the stressful event or situation is over all those hormones dissipate and your body normalizes again. It’s a beautiful system that works amazingly well.
Chronic stress is another story. When you’re under chronic stress, your body never gets the chance to return to normal. You’re exposed to ongoing doses of these same stress hormones day in and day out. And that’s not a good thing. We already know that stress contributes to a wide variety of health problems from diabetes to heart disease and obesity.
Now a study from Ohio State University shows that when we’re chronically stressed, our immune systems kick into high gear and cause inflammation in the brain. Not only that, chronic stress stops new neurons from forming in the parts of the brain associated with memory and with emotions.
And that, folks, affects your memory in a seriously negative way.
If inflammation leads to Alzheimer’s, could stress be a root cause?
This study could have far-reaching implications for those researching many brain disorders. The most recent Alzheimer’s research strongly suggests that it’s linked to inflammation and the immune response. If this is true, then reducing that inflammation could be the key to prevention. And if chronic stress is as inflammatory as research suggests, stress management could be a powerful preventive tool.
The Alzheimers/stress connection is still to be explored. However, the current study leaves little doubt that stress has a measurable effect on short term memory and that inflammation is probably the culprit.
It was a simple study. Researchers taught mice to navigate a maze that included an escape hole. Once the mice were comfortable with it, they repeatedly exposed them to a bigger, meaner mouse—the equivalent of bullying, job stress, or something similar. The mice who had to confront the intruder multiple times had a hard time remembering where the escape hole was. The mice who weren’t so stressed out had no problem.
That won’t be surprising to anyone who’s found themselves near tears trying to find their car in a hospital parking lot. What is surprising is that it took up to 28 days for the mice to recover in some cases. Considering that mice only live 2-3 years, 28 days is the equivalent of several years in a human life.
The researchers also looked at what was going on in the mice’s brains. Once again they found major differences. The stressed-out mice had brains full of macrophages—immune cells that respond to injury or illness. This means that they had brain inflammation going on even though there was no actual illness or physical injury. And at both 10 and 28 days, their brains weren’t producing new neurons in the hippocampus—the area that controls memory and, incidentally, is the part of the brain first affected by Alzheimer’s.
If you needed any proof that your “brain fog” really is stress-induced, here it is. But more importantly, this study shows that there’s a concrete, physical reason for it. And, with the newest Alzheimer’s-related discoveries in mind, that reason is more than a little worrying.
Recent studies strongly hint that we might have been getting Alzheimer’s wrong all this time. Beta-amyloid plaques, which we’ve always been told are the cause of the disease, might instead be an immune-system response to inflammation. In other words, they may be the body’s effort to protect the brain, not to destroy it.
What does this mean for you? We already know that stress plays a role in many major diseases. This study is just one more reason to cut your stress levels as much as possible. And while an in-depth discussion of stress-management is beyond the scope of this article, there are two simple stress-busters you can use every day:
Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep floods your body with stress hormones just like a stressful event. And shorting yourself just an hour per night can take a serious toll if it happens often. Most adults need not just 6 or 7 hours of sleep per night but 8-9, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And while it’s true that people over 60 don’t need as much as younger people, they still need 7-8.
Learn how to say no. We live in a busy world that’s constantly asking more of us than we really have to give. And here’s a truth that many of us choose to ignore: just because we’re asked to do something doesn’t mean we have to say yes. When you’re put on the spot by family, friends, or work ask yourself three questions.
- Is this really necessary?
- Do I absolutely have to do it now?
- Do I have to do it myself, or can I delegate to someone else?
If the answer to any of these is “no,” then don’t do it. Politely but firmly say “no.”
And don’t feel guilty. These two simple tricks can take a real bite out of the stress in your life…and reducing your stress just might save your memory.
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