Stress, Aging and the Brain

Dharma S Khalsa, MD Health Guide
  •      Did you know that the latest brain research reveals that stress may cause short term memory loss? Well, it's true. Stress, anxiety, and worry may also disrupt brain cell function leading to Alzheimer's disease as well as depression. This is vitally important information considering our multitasking, hyperwired, 24/7 lifestyle we live today. 

         Many of us forget things if we either don't pay attention or if we don't think they are important enough for us to remember. This is a normal part of life.  But if we live under unrelenting stress, we begin to forget things that are important to us. All the extra demands that are put on us increase our stress levels and it begins to show in short term memory loss. 

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         Conventional medicine has little to offer us to help with memory loss or to help prevent Alzheimer's disease.   However, chronic stress causes a long-lasting increase in the production of cortisol from the adrenal glands. This rise in cortisol is a normal response to stress to help us cope, but when the stress is over, cortisol levels should return to normal. With chronic stress, however, this does not happen and cortisol levels stay high with disastrous consequences for the brain.

         Cortisol affects the hippocampus, which is the part of our brain that helps sort and store memories. It prevents it from taking up glucose; it also slows nerve impulse transmission and eventually can lead to death of brain cells. The size of the hippocampus in Alzheimer's patients is considerably reduced as the disease progresses. Cortisol also inhibits a process called "long-term potentiation" that is critical to laying down new memories. Altogether high levels of cortisol are lethal to brain cells and seriously impair our brain function.

          There are many ways to experience stress relief, the first of which is avoiding stressful situations, if there is a choice. Meditation is one the most powerful ways to lower cortisol levels and raise DHEA. Meditators also have lower levels of lipid peroxidases, which are a marker for free radical damage. In a study of the elderly, it was found that meditators had a greater life expectancy and longevity than did non-meditators, so there are a lot of benefits to a meditation practice.

         To prevent short term memory loss in this kind of environment, meditation, nutrition, exercise and sometimes conventional medications are all part of the program.   The brain, even though it's the most complicated and mysterious organ in our body, is in fact just flesh and blood. It needs the right food and dietary supplements, exercise and protection from harm to help it function at maximum capacity.

Published On: January 26, 2009