Stress, Aging and the Brain

By: Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D.


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.  Here is an example of someone impacted by stress:

Julie was distraught. She was a mother of two teenage girls and was happily married to Bill who was a physician. She worked full-time as a health care administrator, a job she enjoyed immensely. Her life seemed to be perfect yet the anguish in her face was easy to see.

She was only 49, yet she had began to notice those small lapses in memory that have been called "senior moments." She had forgotten she had promised to take her daughters to a party recently, she had missed a parents meeting at school, and was finding it hard to remember the names of the new physicians at her hospital.

What really scared her, though, was that she had completely missed an important administrators meeting. She had never missed one before in the 20 years she had worked at the hospital. In fact, she had always prided herself on having a perfect memory.

Julie was worried that she was developing Alzheimer’s disease. Her father had been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s a couple of years previously and she knew that if you have a family member with Alzheimer's disease, you have a three-to fourfold greater chance of developing it.

As I talked with Julie, it became clear that her life had changed considerably over the past few years. Her teenage daughters demanded a lot more of her time, her husband was working longer hours, and she felt she had more stress in the workplace. This added up to much more stress causes than ever before.

Conventional medicine had little to offer Julie to overcome her memory loss or to help prevent Alzheimer's disease.   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.

Julie though, was forgetting things that were important to her. All the extra demands that had been put on her over the past few years had increased her stress levels enormously. 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.

DHEA is the most predominant of the steroid hormones and declines with age. In fact, DHEA levels are a good measure of the aging process. When a persons’s level is high and their DHEA is low, which is common with older people who are under stress, we find this because they use up their DHEA to produce the excess cortisol.

To prevent short term memory loss in this kind of environment, 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.

Stress Management

Julie's main problem was chronic stress that had raised her cortisol levels, so this was the main part of the program for her. 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.

Yoga, breathing exercises, and chanting also can lower your stress and anxiety levels. Whichever you chose, the most important point is to make it a regular practice. These techniques do not work like aspirin; their effect builds over a period of time. Recent studies show that more advanced meditations, what I call medical meditations, directly stimulate the hippocampus and improve memory loss.

Exercise and eating right are also ways to protect your brain and lower stress.  Combining all of these practices helped Julie lower her stress and improve her memory in no time at all.