Stress strain on the brain can put health in peril

Stress strain on the brain can put health in peril

As published in The Vancouver Sun newspaper, May 29, 2014


What is stress?

Stress is a biological and psychological response that often arises as a secondary experience to an event or thought that evokes feelings of frustration, nervousness, or anger. Stress can be triggered by routine events (e.g. pressures of work or family), during normal transitional times in a person’s life (e.g. starting a new job, ending a relationship, a death in the family or having a child), or with the onset of illness or injury. People have different levels of stress tolerance and can express stress in different ways. Common symptoms of stress include muscle tightness, headaches, increased heart rate and abdominal discomfort.

Is stress helpful or harmful?

A stress response can be beneficial and even protective in the short-term, as it helps people react to a stressor and adapt to the situation. However, chronic stress can result in wear and tear of the body and mind and has been associated with medical problems such as heart attack, stroke, atherosclerosis and mental health problems (e.g. depression and anxiety). Prolonged stress also increases the risk of developing age-related cognitive disorders including Mild Cognitive Impairment, Vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

How does stress affect the brain?

Studies have shown that structural changes in the brain occur as a result of chronic stress. For example, the size of the hippocampus (a structure that is integral in learning and memory) and the pre-frontal cortex (an area of the brain associated with high-level thinking skills) can shrink under conditions of chronic stress. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis within the brain also becomes over-stimulated with stress which results in chronically elevated levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Heightened cortisol levels can have a neurotoxic effect over time and have been linked to accelerated brain aging.

Subjectively, individuals who have an increased susceptibility or sensitivity to stress have more perceived cognitive inefficiencies. Objectively, the ability to learn, remember, and make decisions can be compromised by chronic stress.

What can you do to prevent stress?

Behaviours to reduce stress, and thereby prevent associated cognitive limitations, include engaging in a regular exercise regimen, eating healthy meals, and developing a good social support network. A positive outlook on life and good self-esteem have also been shown to decrease stress.

If you are concerned about the long-term impact stress has had or will have on your cognitive functions, we recommend a Memory & Cognitive Assessment through Copeman Healthcare’s Brain Health Department. This type of assessment can determine how your brain is functioning today while also acting as a benchmark to track your brain health over time. For more information on scheduling a Memory and Cognitive Assessment (MCA), please contact your nearest Copeman Brain Health Department: Calgary 403-270-2273, Edmonton 780-455-2273 or Vancouver 604-707- 2273.

Dr. Lynn Rennison is a Registered Psychologist and Board Certified Clinical Neuropsychologist and Clinical Instructor with UBC Deptartment of Medicine practicing at the Royal Columbian Hospital. Dr. Rennison joined Copeman Healthcare’s Brain Health/Neuropsychology Department in April 2013 on a casual basis.

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