The Effects of Stress on Cognitive Aging

March 24, 2023 / Senior Living Community
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A senior woman with gray hair and glasses sitting at a desk and looking out the window as she is experiencing stress.

Stress is inevitable, but how do you know when you're experiencing too much stress? Stress can negatively affect people of all ages, but stress can be even more harmful to aging adults. Discover the negative effects of stress and its link to cognitive aging. 

What Is Stress? 

The World Health Organization defines stress as "a state of worry or mental tension caused by a  difficult situation." 

Whether it's mental, emotional, or physical, stress affects numerous systems in our body, from our metabolism to the immune system. There are three types of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. 

Acute stress is also known as short-term stress or daily stress. When stressful events occur, it doesn't take long for the body's symptoms to resume a state of calm or normalcy. 

Episodic acute stress happens more frequently and is marked by stressful events. After such events, it can take more time for the body to return to that normal state. These two acute stress states can still cause symptoms such as headaches, emotional ups and downs, and poor sleep. The short-term effects of these states affect cognitive functioning and can cause forgetfulness and poor judgment. 

Chronic stress is defined as "a consistent sense of feeling pressured or overwhelmed  for long periods of time." Symptoms of chronic stress include low energy, unfocused thinking, migraines, weight gain, and more. This can cause various health problems, from high blood pressure and emotional withdrawal to cognitive impairment. 

What are the Long-Term Effects of Being In a State of Constant Stress? 

Chronic stress is linked to several conditions, both psychological and physical. Multiple studies show long-term, chronic stress is associated with lower cognitive performance. 

Mayo Clinic reports that this is due to the fight or flight response constantly being activated. When that response is activated for a long period, the stress hormones disrupt all the body's processes, specifically impairing memory and concentration. This can put older adults at higher  risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease. 

How Can You Combat Chronic Stress? 

While you can't control stressful events from occurring in life, you can control how you respond to them. Learning to manage high levels of stress is an important step to avoiding cognitive decline and improving your working memory. 

  1. First, it's important to identify triggers in your life that cause stress.  
  2. Second, discover how to care for yourself after a stressful event. Stress management looks different to each person but can include meditation, exercise, therapy, journaling, or practicing a healthy lifestyle. 
  3. Finally, it's important to avoid unhealthy coping skills, such as drinking or using tobacco.

To learn more about your stress levels and cognitive health, talk to your doctor. Together, you can make a plan to set yourself up for healthy aging.


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