En español l We've heard for years how stress can wreak havoc on your body. Now, it's clear stress also can harm your mind.
Whether it's short-term stress (17 people are coming for Thanksgiving dinner and your oven just went on the blink) or long-term (a loved one is seriously ill), the body releases powerful fight-or-flight stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol).
While these hormones do sharpen attention and spur us to take needed action, humans weren't designed to handle high levels of stress hormones day after day, year after year.
Indeed, in the brain those stress hormones weaken blood vessels, kill off neurons and even shrink the hippocampus, a known risk factor for late-life Alzheimer's disease.
How does stress do its dirty work? The exact link between stress and aging-related illnesses like dementia eluded scientists for years until a study at the University of California, San Francisco in 2004 turned up a striking finding — that chronic psychological stress speeds up the normal aging of a person's cells.
For their study, Elissa Epel, an assistant professor of psychiatry, and Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist, compared mothers who were caring for chronically ill children — clearly a group under severe stress — to a control group of mothers with healthy kids.
Those who had been caregivers the longest had the lowest levels of a crucial enzyme called telomerase, which keeps cells healthy by repairing age-related damage to the tips of chromosomes. In fact, blood tests showed that some of the mothers who had been caregiving the longest were, on a cellular level, 10 years older than their chronological age.
But the news on the stress-brain connection isn't all bleak, says Epel: There have been heartening developments, too. Stress per se isn't the enemy of brain health, experts note; the way we perceive and handle it matters a lot, too. In fact, research shows that stress-reduction techniques, coupled with exercise and a healthy diet, can slow or even reverse the damage inside cells.
How do you begin to dial down your stress? Try the following five strategies.
Next page: Get to know your stress response. »