Contact: Robert Stawski, PhD
For Release: Immediately
We all face petty daily stressors: the doctor keeps you waiting for over an hour while a work deadline looms; traffic is brutal; a necessary appliance suddenly breaks; family members snap at you.
Could these everyday annoyances impair your cognitive health over time? Could they, in effect, age your brain? If you think not, think again. But it’s not the stress per se that contributes to mental declines, it’s how people respond emotionally to common stressors. Older adults’ brains are particularly vulnerable if they react to typical daily annoyances with negative emotions such as sadness, anger, irritation or anxiety. Letting the minor blips of life roll off your back helps to preserve brain health over time, suggests a novel study of 111 people 65 to 95 years old who were followed for 2-1/2 years.
The study, published online ahead of print, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. “It’s not how many stressors you have but how these stressors impact you emotionally that’s important for the brain,” says senior study author Robert Stawski, PhD, Associate Professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences at the College of Public Health and Sciences, Oregon State University. His coauthor is Stuart MacDonald, PhD, Professor of Psychology at The University of Victoria, BC, Canada.
In the study participants looked at a series of two strings of numbers and were asked whether the same numbers appeared in the two strings, regardless of order. Past studies have linked fluctuations in how quickly people can do this exercise with decreased mental focus, cognitive aging and risk for dementia as well as structural and functional brain changes that reflect poor cognitive health. Each participant completed the numbers exercises for up to 30 sessions over the 2-1/2-year period.
They also were asked about stressors experienced that day by themselves, a family member or a close friend. And they rated how they felt right at that moment, choosing from an array of positive and negative emotions and a range of intensity. Participants also filled out a check list of physical symptoms.
In the overall comparison, those who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions and reported a more dour mood in general showed greater fluctuations in their performance, which suggests worse mental focus and cognitive health among the more strongly negative and reactive people.
But by following each person over time the scientists also could track what happened on an individual basis, and striking age differences emerged. For the oldest—late 70s to mid-90s—being more reactive to stressors than usual also contributed to worse cognitive performance.
In contrast, people in their late 60s to mid-70s actually did better on the test if they reported more stressors. “These relatively younger participants may have a more active lifestyle to begin with, more social and professional engagement, which could sharpen their mental functioning,” Stawski speculates.
Interestingly, when people experienced more positive emotions their performance improved, regardless of age.
The study results have vital real-world applications, says Stawski. Adults 80 and older are in the world’s fastest growing age group. “People’s daily emotions and how they respond emotionally to their stressors are important contributors to cognitive health,” and the oldest sector—late 70s and beyond—are most vulnerable. Older adults should be aware of their emotional reactions to stressful events and explore stress-lowering strategies, if needed, to preserve brain health and cognitive function. “We can’t get rid of daily stressors completely,” notes Stawski. “But endowing people with the skills to weather stressors when they happen could pay dividends in cognitive health.”
Study Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000643
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org),
founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”