We are all familiar with how it feels to be overwhelmed by stress. Once worries begin to flood your mind, you cannot seem to think about anything else. The weight of anxious thoughts causes your chest to tighten, as your breath becomes shallow and rapid. An unfamiliar feeling of uneasiness fills your stomach. Your face flushes, and you begin to sweat. While it is unpleasant to experience these mental and physical symptoms, most of us do not consider the danger that persistent stress poses to our long-term cognitive health.
Several studies have recently come to light that highlight how stress taxes your mental faculties. In one study that began in 2005, 507 healthy people received an initial stress evaluation and were subsequently monitored for the onset of mild cognitive impairment over the course of nearly 4 years. Researchers discovered that for every 5% increase in their stress scores, the participants were 30% more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. Even more disturbing, the individuals with the highest anxiety levels were more than 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with aMCI, a common precursor to Alzheimer's disease.
The body of research on anxiety and cognitive decline suggests that elevated levels of cortisol may be to blame. Widely known as the stress hormone, cortisol plays an essential role when you are under pressure and your fight-or-flight response kicks in. However, problems arise when levels of this key hormone remain elevated for long periods of time as a result of chronic stress. In addition to weakening the immune system and increasing cholesterol and blood pressure, chronically high levels of cortisol have been shown to negatively impact learning and memory retrieval, accelerating the progression of age-related cognitive decline.
To keep your mind sharp well into advanced years, it is essential to minimize stress and maintain a calm mental state throughout your daily life. But this is easier said than done. Stressful events are a natural part of life, and studies have shown that anxiety levels typically rise as we grow older.
Consider taking up stress relieving physical activities, like yoga or running, which can help improve blood flow, promote the release of endorphins, and quiet your mind. Other non-physical relaxing activities, such as knitting or painting, can also help extricate you from a pattern of stress-inducing behavior. Finally, if you feel overwhelmed by stress and unable to escape it, talking through your feelings and emotions with a certified therapist can help alleviate the psychological burden of stress.