Brain Draining Stress

Prevention Is Possible

New studies suggest that stress from work may accelerate brain aging and memory loss.

By John Salak –

The negative health impact of stress is well documented. In fact, the American Brain Society has labelled stress as “The Silent Killer.” Now, however, chronic stress from work has been linked to accelerating brain aging and memory loss.

Colorado State University is reporting that cognitively normal older adults, age 60 to 79, who reported high levels of stress from their most recent jobs performed poorly on memory tasks compared to those with less stress. These individuals also recorded “smaller volumes” in their brain’s hippocampus, which is critical to maintaining a healthy brain and fighting dementia.

The university’s results came by connecting occupation survey responses with brain-imaging data of the adults involved.

“We know that stress can accelerate physical aging and is the risk factor for many chronic illnesses,” said Aga Burzynska, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Human Development and Family. “But this is the first evidence that occupational stress can accelerate brain and cognitive aging.”

Examining the impact of physical stress is critical since the average America spends more time at work than on “leisure social, cognitive and physical activities, which protect our aging minds and brains,” she added.

Physical stress at work and its impact on the brain are driven by the physical demands at work. These included excessive reaching, or lifting boxes onto shelves, not necessarily aerobic activity, which usually fall under leisure activity and is associated with greater hippocampal volume.

“This finding suggests that physical demands at work may have parallel yet opposing associations with brain health,” Burzynska explained. “Most interventions for postponing cognitive decline focus on leisure, not on your job. It’s kind of unknown territory, but maybe future research can help us make some tweaks to our work environment for long-term cognitive health.”

Lightening up the physical stress load at work is only one way to potentially offset a harmful deterioration of brain function. The University of Southern California has identified 12 other risk factors, which if targeted could delay or prevent 40 percent of dementia cases.

The 12-point list is a byproduct of an earlier list of nine points that was established in 2017 by a commission of dementia experts. The three new factors cited include excessive alcohol intake, head-injury in mid-life and air pollution in later life.

The earlier risk factors identified include less education early in life, mid-life hearing loss, hypertension and obesity, smoking, depression, social isolation, physical inactivity and diabetes later in life.

“We are learning that tactics to avoid dementia begin early and continue throughout life, so it’s never too early or too late to take action,” said Lon Schneider, MD, a commission member and co-director of the USC Alzheimer Disease Research Center.

Finding effective ways to offset the onslaught of dementia is critical, given that 50 million people worldwide now suffer from it—a number that is expected to triple in the next 30 years. The good news in the USC report is that in certain countries, such as the United States, England and France, the proportion of older people with dementia has fallen, in part due to lifestyle changes that demonstrate dementia can be reduced through preventative measures, Schneider says.

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