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Response to daily stressors may affect brains of older adults

Stressors like getting stuck in traffic are inevitable. Taking life in stride may help older adults keep their brains healthy.

How you deal with daily hassles like traffic jams, long lines, or loud people may determine how well your brain ages according to a study recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Research has long showed that chronic stress is a risk factor for diminished physical, mental and cognitive health and longevity. These findings are particularly important given that the life expectancy for men and women in most developed nations is approximately 80 years. The more we can preserve our brain health the better.

In the study, a team of researchers from Oregon State University followed 111 older adults between the ages of 66 and 95 years, for 2 ½ years. Participants were asked to complete cognitive tests every 6 months. The tests involved viewing a series of two strings of numbers, then remembering whether or not the same numbers appeared in the two strings, regardless of order. Previous research has shown that performance on tasks like these is linked to structural and functional brain changes, cognitive health, and risk for dementia.

They also reported their daily stressors and current mood, and completed a checklist of physical symptoms.

Overall, those who responded more negatively to daily hassles reported a more unpleasant mood, and demonstrated poorer results in measures of physical and cognitive health compared to those who were more able to take hassles in stride.

Interestingly, these effects depended on a person’s age. Older adults in their late 70s to mid 90s who were reactive to stressors demonstrated worse cognitive performance. In contrast, people in their late 60s to mid 70s performed better cognitively when they reported more stress. This suggests that a negative response to daily challenges may be particularly impactful to the brain health of older adults.

In light of what we know about the harmful effects of chronic stress, it’s important to get it under wraps regardless of your age. Intentional breathing exercises can help, as can taking a few minutes to pay attention to what you’re thinking, and how those thoughts make you feel. A little mindfulness can go a long way.

Need to tame stress? Try this breath awareness exercise.


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