From struggling to remember where you’ve parked to forgetting someone’s name; worries about your memory are a common anxiety – particularly when you have a lot on your mind.
Now a study of nearly 25,000 Americans aged 45 and older, published in the open access medical journal JAMA Network Open, confirmed what many of us already probably suspected: stressed people are more likely to experience a decline in cognitive function – namely problems remembering, concentrating and learning new things.
If you’re a person dealing with a giant emotional load who rushes to get their whole family out of the door every morning, then spends a day at work worrying about whether you’ve shut the front door, you know what I’m talking about.
Many of us over the course of our lives experience acute stress – defined by Yale Medical as “a dramatic physiological and psychological reaction to a specific event”. It’s anxiety about an exam, pre-wedding jitters, nerves before an important meeting or a date. This short-term stress is known to be one of the least damaging types of stress and has a minimally negative effect on our health.
Chronic stress, however, is different. It’s “a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time,” according to Yale Medical. It’s being constantly under it at work (healthcare workers, doctors, those in social care and teachers report incredibly high levels of chronic stress, and especially women), perpetually struggling financially, or dealing with long-term illness, for example.
Black participants in the study reported higher levels of stress overall. “Black individuals report greater exposure to chronic stressors, such as discrimination,” the study authors wrote.
CNN reports previous research has found that Black adults are about 50 percent more likely to have a stroke than white adults, and older Black people are about twice as likely to have a form of dementia.
Periods of extended stress have long been known to take a serious physical toll on the body – raising the risk of stroke, cardiovascular problems, cancers, hormonal issues, sleep disorders and poor immunity. Stress is also known to drive people to unhealthy coping behaviours such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and poor levels of physical activity which can lead to issues such as diabetes and obesity.
The pandemic, too, pushed many of us into a state of chronic stress (particularly if we were stressed to begin with) thanks to home schooling, extended periods of social isolation, financial insecurity, heightened health anxiety and a sense of timeless drift.
In January 2022, a piece in the journal Nature examined how the pandemic was ageing us and shortening our lives, investigating the part played by chronic stress. “Accelerated ageing can result from several factors, some of which have been highlighted by the pandemic,” wrote author Emily Sohn.
But these new findings about the long-term impact on our cognitive function are so profound, they’ve lead Dr Ambar Kulshreshtha study co-author and Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta to call for chronic stress to be recognised as another risk factor for dementia (others include a family history, lifestyle factors such as poor diet and smoking, high blood pressure, traumatic head injuries). “[Chronic Stress] not only worsens your current cognition, but can have harmful effects in the long-term as well,” he said.
The stats around dementia already make stark reading. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are the leading cause of death in Britain. According to Alzheimers Research UK, one in three people born in the UK in 2022 will develop dementia in their lifetime.
Currently, there are 944,000 people with dementia in the UK (and, more than 55m globally, according to the World Health Organisation), a figure which will increase to over one million by 2030 and over 1.6 million by 2050. It’s also one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally.
The relationship between stress and cognitive function is a “vicious cycle,” Dr Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine told CNN. Although not involved in the study, Arnsten has researched how stress affects the brain.
“These stress-signaling pathways get released and they rapidly impair the higher cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex that includes things like working memory… With chronic stress, you actually lose grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, in sadly the exact regions involved with inhibiting the stress response.” In other words, the more chronic stress someone is exposed to, the more their brain struggles to cope with chronic stress.
Although our brains change as we age (over the age of 40, the average human brain begins to shrink by approximately five per cent per decade), it doesn’t have to affect our memory, cognition or focus. Nor do our levels of stress.
“Stress is ubiquitous,” said Dr Kulshreshtha, “but there are tools to help with our ability to manage stress and reduce it.. Dementia has few treatments, they’re expensive and not readily available. The best way to address dementia is by prevention.”
But how? According to the Global Council on Brain Health, the adage that “what’s good for the heart is good for the head” is correct. “Even though we’re learning more and more that this is an important relationship, most people aren’t aware of it,” says Kristine Yaffe, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology and Epidemiology at the University of California.
How to combat this
That means regularly getting the blood pumping, whether that’s by running, training or simply taking a brisk walk or dancing around the house has been shown to improve cognitive function and lower your risk of dementia by as much as 30 percent (rising to 45 percent for Alzheimer’s specifically).
Dr Gad Marshall, associate medical director of clinical trials at the Centre for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital recommends 30 minutes of moderately vigorous aerobic exercise, three to four days per week.
Exercise also pays dividends for our memory right now too. Regular movement improves the memory, attention and processing speeds of healthy younger adults when compared with non-aerobic exercise such as stretching and toning. Working out can also help keep blood pressure and cholesterol in check too, which is useful as high levels of both or either have been linked to cognitive decline and, avoid smoke, including second and third hand smoke. It’s linked to a 30 – 50 per cent increased risk of dementia in later life.
Women in particular should pay attention to symptoms of chronic stress as a recent Gallup poll showed that women are more likely than men to suffer burnout “at work” – and this gender gap doubled over the pandemic.
It’s a phenomenon described by identical twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their 2019 book “Burnout”. Behind this gender imbalance is society’s tendency to define women as “human givers” rather than “human beings”.
“More than men, women are expected to give every ounce of their attention, bodies, health, dreams in the service of someone else’s wellbeing,” Emily Nagoski explained to me when we spoke back in 2019. “The patriarchy expects women to be giving themselves in every sense. These things take a physical toll.”
“Your body, with its instinct for self-preservation, knows, on some level, that ‘Human Giver Syndrome’ is slowly killing you,’ explains a section of Burnout. “That’s why you keep trying mindfulness and green smoothies and self-care trend after self-care trend.”
But, the book argues, the solution is reassuringly graspable. Alongside physical activity (dubbed “the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress cycle — even if it’s just jumping up and down”), other pleasurable tactics to cope with chronic stress include hugging someone you love for 20 seconds or kissing for six seconds (studies show this releases oxytocin, the hormone that makes you feel safe and connected), laughter, petting an animal, deep and slow breathing, and creative expression. There’s also plenty of emphasis on resting. “If people do only one thing, let it be sleeping for an extra half-hour a day,” Emily says.
Protect your brain health, one snooze at a time.