My Real Job® is a real killer. And like everyone else in this country today, the economy is causing even more stress. Outsourcing. Cut backs. More work for those left behind. There should be a national program called, "No Worker Left Behind" as those not experiencing the pain of a layoff instead experience the pain of a double workload. The mantra of achieving a work-life balance is a crock of shit at the moment. I now refer to signing onto my laptop each morning as "Crap-A-Palooza" as I have no idea what I will be dealing with on any given day. To say I am stressed, is akin to describing an atomic explosion as being "somewhat noisy."
What has become worrisome for me, given my endocrine issues of the last several years, has been what I term memory loss. I forget what I came into the kitchen for. I might forget the name of a neighbor down the street. I can recall my third grade teacher (Mrs. Kasner) but couldn't name a single college professor if my life depended on it. Naturally, one begins to worry about Alzheimers and other such things. I started to do some research.
“There’s always going to be stress in the environment,” says Howard Fillit, MD, clinical professor of geriatrics and medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. “But what’s damaging is the distress we feel internally in response to it.”
Fillit’s distinction points to the bodywide reaction our bodies experience when we routinely respond to stress by going into fight-or-flight mode. In our brains, the stress response can cause memory and other aspects of cognition to become impaired, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and accelerated memory loss with aging. One thing that can happen is you can start feeling a lot older, mentally, than you are.
“Patients come in complaining of faulty memory and wonder if they’re beginning to get Alzheimer’s,” says Roberta Lee, MD, vice-chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and author of The Superstress Solution (Random House, 2010). “Their workups and MRI scans look normal. In the interview, I ask them about their lifestyle and almost invariably they have compounded stress.”
Studies at the University of California–San Francisco have shown that repeated instances of the stress response (and their accompanying floods of cortisol) can cause shrinkage of the hippocampus — a key part of the brain’s limbic system vital to both stress regulation and long-term memory. Call it the downside of neuroplasticity.
Why It Matters to You
Aside from the obvious — no one wants his or her brain to age faster than it’s already going to — this research matters because it suggests that you have some influence over the rate of your own cognitive change.
To protect the brain from cortisol-related premature aging, Lee suggests building stress disruptors into your regular routine: “A five-minute period in the middle of every day during which you do absolutely nothing — nothing! — can help a lot, especially if you are consistent about it,” she says.
Her other recommendations include eating breakfast every day — complex carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies) and some protein. “Breakfast helps your metabolism feel like it won’t be stressed — caught up in a starvation-gluttony pattern,” she explains.
And when anxiety does strike, a good way to initiate the relaxation response is her “four-five breath” routine: breathing in through the nose to a count of four, then out through the mouth to a count of five. “Repeat it four times and you’ll feel the relaxation,” she says. “Best of all, do the four breaths twice daily, at the beginning and end of the day.”
Or win the lottery, retire, and move to Arizona! Stressed? Tell me about it and what you are doing to alleviate it.