Stress and Memory

Have you had any luck with single-tasking this week? Even driving without talking, or texting, is a step forward. Keep at it. The rewards are vast from just being present and doing one thing at a time, the great masters called this mindfulness, and it is something to strive for. Today, I want to delve in a bit more to the effects of stress and cortisol on our brains and our memory.  

I am guessing that many of us thought by the time we were eligible for AARP, as older people were portrayed in movies and television when we were growing up, we would be slowing down and heading for time in the RV to See America First. Somehow, life didn’t quite turn out that way, and I for one, am busier than ever, partly because of our 24/7-always-connected world. This busyness causes stress on our bodies, and raises our cortisol levels at a time when biologically our bodies have down-shifted from firing on all cylinders, all the time, as when we were 25.

Chronic stress-- caring for a loved one, a long-term negative work situation, divorce, grieving the death of a spouse/partner/child, financial pressures or health problems, causes our cortisol levels to rise and stay elevated. The result is a cascade of effects that puts our immune system, all our hormonal systems (which help regulate every organ and function in our body), and our neurological system (system of nerves) from head to toe at risk of going haywire. In future blogs I will talk more about the effects of stress on the body. Here, I want to touch on what happens to our ability to retrieve data, store data, reasoning, learning something new—the entire scope of processing  information we are required to do a million times every day.

Consistently high levels of cortisol impairs all these functions—we can’t remember things we once knew we knew, we are unable to hold new information in our minds, and our ability to think and navigate successfully in the world is diminished. This bundle of brain functions are called “working memory.” I think of what cortisol’s short-circuiting does to our working memory like a piano with missing keys; when I play Moonlight Serenade, the missing notes makes Glenn Miller’s classic sound odd. Cortisol has the ability to make our memory act odd. I recall during a particularly stressful period a few years ago, I could not pull up words I wanted to use. My memory would literally go blank, nothing would come-- my circuitry was shut down, everyone gone home for the night. It was scary. After the period passed, my word retrieval, along with my ability to remember why I went into a room, returned. I was grateful.

As I mentioned last week, over time and as we get older, chronic stress causes our brains to change shape, and sections—most notably the front part of our brains, will actually shrink, forever ending our ability to have optimal brain or memory function. Sadly, MRI’s show this to be true. When I started my studies to become a gerontologist, I learned in-depth how seriously stress messes with our minds, and as we enter middle age our bodies don’t have the same reserves to preserve brain function.

Right now, this red-hot minute, lowering our stress level should become our #1 priority, because, the good news is: when we do, our bodies and our memory can recover and heal. Starting next week I am going to begin talking about ways to do just that, not only to stop the decline, but boost our health and memory and turn our backs on memory-robbing dementia.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!