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Senior Health: How Stress Changes the Brain

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While stress is an inevitable part of life, there is a difference between the normal stress felt while preparing for a vacation or meeting a deadline and chronic stress, which can affect the brain and even cause damage to brain cells. For many seniors, chronic stress may result from the loss of a spouse, a disability, chronic illness, a change in living situation, or money problems, and can affect the brain in the following ways.

Stress and Memory

Research read by the scientific division of Home Care Assistance Douglas County has suggested that long-term stress can harm memory in older adults. In fact, even a moderate amount of stress, like driving in an unfamiliar area, can cause someone to produce memory test results that are similar to those of someone with Alzheimer’s. Researchers believe the stress hormone cortisol is responsible for the fast decline in memory performance in the short-term, and it is believed that long-term stress plays a role in the development of disorders like Alzheimer’s.

Stress and Brain Cells

Neuroscientists have suspected that cortisol and chronic stress can damage the brain. A new study published in 2014 confirmed this link by showing that chronic stress triggers permanent changes in brain function and structure. This may be why young people who have chronic stress early in their life are more prone to anxiety and mood disorders later. Researchers found that chronic stress and high levels of cortisol actually cause an overproduction of myelin-producing cells in the brain and fewer neurons. This leads to too much “white matter” in the brain instead of “gray matter,” which is responsible for higher functions like thinking.

Stress and Malfunctioning Stem Cells

Researchers also believe that cortisol triggers a domino effect that makes the brain predisposed to remaining in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Long-term stress can trigger stem cells to turn into a cell that inhibits connections to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which would help with memory and learning, instead creating a system in the brain that’s linked to depression and anxiety.

While we may think of stress as an immediate issue, the truth is it has very long-lasting consequences, particularly for seniors who may be dealing with chronic stress from any number of triggers. Taking steps to relieve stress is important both in the short term and to help prevent memory problems and depression in the long run.

Many causes of chronic stress, like anxiety, loneliness, and mobility challenges, can be mitigated with help from an hourly or live-in caregiver in Douglas County. At Home Care Assistance, care extends beyond everyday tasks. Every expertly trained and compassionate caregiver also serves as a pillar of emotional support and companionship, promoting health, wellness, and balance. To learn more, reach out to a friendly Care Manager at 720-287-1685 and schedule a no-obligation in-home consultation.