Posts Tagged ‘stress’

Why are some people sharp as a tack at 95 years old, while others begin struggling with mental clarity in their 50s?

A lot of it has to do with genetics, but certain lifestyle factors also play an important role in how our brain ages. So while you can’t control your genes, you can take advantage of the latest science and avoid these seven big brain mistakes:

Mistake No. 1: Eating a standard American diet

Foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats and processed foods — i.e., the typical American diet — can wreak havoc on your brain over time. Studies have shown that excess sugar consumption can impair learning and memory, and increase your vulnerability to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Some scientists have even referred to Alzheimer’s as “Type 3 Diabetes,” suggesting that diet may have some role in an individual’s risk for developing the disease.

A Mediterranean-based diet, on the other hand, can help protect the brain from signs of aging and ward off cognitive decline. A recent study showed that following this type of diet — which is a good source of brain-healthy nutrients and includes a lot of fish, healthy fats, whole grains and vegetables — could slash Alzheimer’s risk by up to 50 percent.

Mistake No. 2: Living next to a highway

Living in a smoggy city might be bad news for your brain. According to research published this month in the journal Stroke, exposure to air pollution is linked with premature aging of the brain.

The researchers found that people who lived closer to a major highway had greater markers of pollution in their lungs and blood, which increased their risk for a form of brain damage known as “silent strokes,” or symptomless strokes. Increased pollution volume was also linked to decreased brain volume — a major sign of aging.

Mistake No. 3: Drinking a few evening cocktails

Don Draper’s daily cigarettes and two-martini lunches might seem glamorous on “Mad Men,” but research suggests that they’re a fast track to neurodegeneration.

It should come as no surprise that excessive drinking and cigarette smoking at any stage of life can have a negative effect on the brain, damaging brain tissue and leading to cognitive impairment. Alcoholism can cause or accelerate aging of the brain.

But just a couple of glasses of wine a night could pose a risk to brain health, even though there are some cardiovascular benefits. A 2012 Rutgers University study found that moderate to binge drinking — drinking relatively lightly during the week and then more on the weekends — can decrease adult brain cell production by 40 percent.

“In the short term there may not be any noticeable motor skills or overall functioning problems, but in the long term this type of behavior could have an adverse effect on learning and memory,” one of the study’s authors, Rutgers neuroscience graduate student Megan Anderson, said in a statement.

Mistake No. 4: Giving in to stress

Living a stressful lifestyle may be the worst thing you can do for your health as you age. Chronic stress is known to shorten the length of telomeres, the sequences at the end of DNA strands that help determine how fast (or slow) the cells in our body age. By shortening telomeres, stress can accelerate the onset of age-related health problems.

What about the brain? Well, some research has suggested that high levels of stress hormones can increase an individual’s risk for age-related brain damage.

“Over the course of a lifetime, the effects of chronic stress can accumulate and become a risk factor for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease,” Howard Fillit, a clinical professor of geriatric medicine at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, wrote in Psychology Today. “Several studies have shown that stress, and particularly one’s individual way of reacting to stress (the propensity to become ‘dis-stressed’ often found in neurotic people for example), increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

If you’re feeling stressed out, try picking up a meditation practice. Research has shown that meditation is effective in lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and protecting the brain from aging.

Mistake No. 5: Getting by on less sleep than you need

There are a number of scary health effects associated with sleep deprivation, from a higher risk of stroke and diabetes to impaired cognitive functioning. Over the years, losing shut-eye can also accelerate brain aging. In a study conducted last year, researchers from Singapore found that the less that older adults slept, the faster their brains aged.

The study’s lead author explained in a statement that among older adults, “sleeping less will increase the rate their brain ages and speed up the decline in their cognitive functions.”

Mistake No. 6: Sitting all day

It’s a well-established fact that sitting for long periods is terrible for your health. A growing body of research has linked a sedentary lifestyle with health risks including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death, even among people who get the recommended daily amount of exercise.

And it turns out that sitting is also pretty bad for your brain. Research has linked physical inactivity with cognitive decline. Moreover, weight gain in older adults — which may result from too much sitting — has been linked with shrinkage in brain areas associated with memory.

So when in doubt, move around. Physical activity has been linked with a number of brain health benefits, including improved learning and memory.

Mistake No. 7: Zoning out

Use it or lose it! If you want to keep your brain sharp, keep it engaged. It doesn’t have to be a challenging intellectual task or a brain-training game, either — simply engaging in everyday activities like reading, cooking or having a conversation (as opposed to vegging out in front of the TV or computer) can make a difference.

But mental exercises like crossword puzzles and sudoku can help, too. A 2013 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that brain exercises are more effective than drugs in preventing cognitive decline.

The bottom line? Doing new and novel things promotes neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons in the brain. So get outside, learn, discover and try something new to keep your brain sharp through the decades.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/30/brain-aging-risk-factors_n_7169912.html

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New research has found that checking email less reduces stress.

It provides further evidence that stepping away from your inbox is a good idea not just for the sake of productivity, but also for the sake of your health.

In an experiment done by Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth Dunn, participants were told to change how they dealt with email in two separate weeks.

In one week, a limit was put on the amount they could check email – they were only allowed to check email three times a day.

The other week, they could check their email as much as they liked.

The researchers – from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver – found that in the week when email use was restricted, participants experienced significantly lower daily stress than when they checked email more often.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214005810

Few concepts in popular psychology have gotten more attention over the last few decades than self-esteem and its importance in life success and long-term mental health. Of course, much of this discussion has focused on young people, and how families, parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors can provide the proper psychological environment to help them grow into functional, mature, mentally stable adults.

Research shows that low self-esteem correlates with poorer mental health outcomes across the board, increased likelihood of suicide attempts, and difficulty developing supportive social relationships. Research also shows that trying to raise low self-esteem artificially comes with its own set of problems, including tendencies toward narcissism, antisocial behavior, and avoiding challenging activities that may threaten one’s self-concept.

This division in the research has led to a division amongst psychologists about how important self-esteem is, whether or not it’s useful to help people improve their self-esteem, and what the best practices are for accomplishing that.

In one camp, you have people who believe improving self-esteem is of paramount importance. On the other side of the fence are those who feel the whole concept of self-esteem is overrated and that it’s more critical to develop realistic perceptions about oneself.

But what if we’ve been asking the wrong questions all along? What if the self-esteem discussion is like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon?

New research is suggesting this may indeed be the case, and that a new concept — self-compassion — could be vastly more important than self-esteem when it comes to long-term mental health and success.

Why the Self-Esteem Model Is Flawed

The root problem with the self-esteem model comes down to some fundamental realities about language and cognition that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced all as one word) was designed to address.

The way psychologists classically treat issues with self-esteem is by having clients track their internal dialog — especially their negative self talk — and then employ a number of tactics to counter those negative statements with more positive (or at least more realistic) ones. Others attempt to stop the thoughts, distract themselves from them, or to self sooth.

Put bluntly, these techniques don’t work very well. The ACT research community has shown this over and over again. There are many reasons that techniques like distraction and thought stopping tend not to work — too many to go into all of them here. For a full discussion, see the books Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. For the purposes of our discussion here, we will look at one aspect of this: How fighting a thought increases its believability.

Imagine a young person has the thought, “There is something wrong with me.” The classic rhetoric of self-esteem forces this person to take the thought seriously. After all he or she has likely been taught that having good self-esteem is important and essential for success in life. If they fight against the thought by countering it, however, that means the thought is confirmed. The thought is itself something that is wrong with the individual and has to change. Every time they struggle against it, the noose just gets tighter as the thought is reconfirmed. The more they fight the thought, the more power they give it.

This is a classic example of why in ACT we say, “If you are not willing to have it, you do.”

The simple fact is, we can’t always prevent young people from experiencing insecurity and low self-esteem. Heck, we can’t eliminate those feelings in ourselves. All people feel inadequate or imperfect at times. And in an ever-evolving, ever-more complex world, there is simply no way we can protect our young people from events that threaten their self-esteem — events like social rejection, family problems, personal failures, and others.

What we can do is help young people to respond to those difficult situations and to self-doubt with self-compassion. And a couple of interesting studies that were recently published show that this may indeed offer a more useful way forward not only for young people, but for all of us.

What Is Self-Compassion?

Before we look at the studies, let’s take a moment to define self-compassion.

Dr. Kirstin Neff, one of the premier researchers in this area, defines self-compassion as consisting of three key components during times of personal suffering and failure:
1. Treating oneself kindly.
2. Recognizing one’s struggles as part of the shared human experience.
3. Holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness.

Given this context, the negativity or positivity of your thoughts isn’t what’s important. It’s how you respond to those thoughts that matters. Going back to the example above — “There is something wrong with me” — instead of fighting against that thought or trying to distract yourself from it, you could notice this thought without getting attached to it (become mindful), understand that it is common to all humans and part of our shared experience as people, and then treat yourself kindly instead of beating yourself up.

Does this approach really work better than simply improving self-esteem?

It seems it does.

A just-published longitudinal study that followed 2,448 ninth graders for a year found that low self-esteem had little effect on mental health in those who had the highest levels of self-compassion. That means that even if they had negative thoughts, those thoughts had minimal impact on their sense of well-being over time as compared to peers who didn’t have self-compassion skills.6

This suggests that teaching kids who suffer from self-esteem issues to be more self-compassionate may have more benefit than simply trying to improve their self-esteem.

The question is: How do we do that?

As it turns out, this is exactly where ACT excels.

Using ACT to Enhance Self-Compassion

Knowing that enhancing self-compassion has been shown not only to mitigate problems with self-esteem, but also impacts other conditions including traumatic stress. Jamie Yadavaia decided to see in his doctoral project if we could enhance self-compassion using ACT.

The results were promising.

A group of 78 students 18 years or older was randomized into one of two groups. The first group was put in a “waitlist condition” which basically means they received no treatment. The other group was provided with six hours of ACT training.

As anticipated, ACT intervention led to substantial increases in self-compassion over the waitlist control post-treatment and two months after the intervention. In this group self-compassion increased 106 percent — an effect size comparable to far longer treatments previously published. Not only that, but the ACT treatment reduced general psychological distress, depression, anxiety, and stress.

At the heart of all these changes was psychological flexibility, this skill seemed to be the key mediating factor across the board, which makes sense. After all, learning how to become less attached to your thoughts, hold them in mindful awareness, and respond to them with a broader repertoire of skills — like self-kindness, for example — has not only been posited in the self-compassion literature as a core feature of mental health but proven time and again in the ACT research as essential for it.

Taken together these studies have an important lesson to teach all of us.

It’s time for us to put down the idea that we have to think well of ourselves at all times to be mature, successful, functional, mentally healthy individuals. Indeed, this toxic idea can foster a kind of narcissistic ego-based self-story that is bound to blow up on us. Instead of increasing self-esteem content what we need to do is increase self-compassion as the context of all we do. That deflates ego-based self-stories, as we humbly accept our place as one amongst our fellow human beings, mindfully acknowledging that we all have self-doubt, we all suffer, we all fail from time to time, but none of that means we can’t live a life of meaning, purpose, and compassion for ourselves and others.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-c-hayes-phd/is-selfcompassion-more-im_b_6316320.html

By Sarah C. P. Williams

There’s a reason people say “Calm down or you’re going to have a heart attack.” Chronic stress—such as that brought on by job, money, or relationship troubles—is suspected to increase the risk of a heart attack. Now, researchers studying harried medical residents and harassed rodents have offered an explanation for how, at a physiological level, long-term stress can endanger the cardiovascular system. It revolves around immune cells that circulate in the blood, they propose.

The new finding is “surprising,” says physician and atherosclerosis researcher Alan Tall of Columbia University, who was not involved in the new study. “The idea has been out there that chronic psychosocial stress is associated with increased cardiovascular disease in humans, but what’s been lacking is a mechanism,” he notes.

Epidemiological studies have shown that people who face many stressors—from those who survive natural disasters to those who work long hours—are more likely to develop atherosclerosis, the accumulation of fatty plaques inside blood vessels. In addition to fats and cholesterols, the plaques contain monocytes and neutrophils, immune cells that cause inflammation in the walls of blood vessels. And when the plaques break loose from the walls where they’re lodged, they can cause more extreme blockages elsewhere—leading to a stroke or heart attack.

Studying the effect of stressful intensive care unit (ICU) shifts on medical residents, biologist Matthias Nahrendorf of Harvard Medical School in Boston recently found that blood samples taken when the doctors were most stressed out had the highest levels of neutrophils and monocytes. To probe whether these white blood cells, or leukocytes, are the missing link between stress and atherosclerosis, he and his colleagues turned to experiments on mice.

Nahrendorf’s team exposed mice for up to 6 weeks to stressful situations, including tilting their cages, rapidly alternating light with darkness, or regularly switching the mice between isolation and crowded quarters. Compared with control mice, the stressed mice—like stressed doctors—had increased levels of neutrophils and monocytes in their blood.

The researchers then homed in on an explanation for the higher levels of immune cells. They already knew that chronic stress increases blood concentrations of the hormone noradrenaline; noradrenaline, Nahrendorf discovered, binds to a cell surface receptor protein called β3 on stem cells in the bone marrow. In turn, the chemical environment of the bone marrow changes and there’s an increase in the activity of the white blood cells produced by the stem cells.

“It makes sense that stress wakes up these immune cells because an enlarged production of leukocytes prepares you for danger, such as in a fight, where you might be injured,” Nahrendorf says. “But chronic stress is a different story—there’s no wound to heal and no infection.”

In mice living with chronic stress, Nahrendorf’s team reported today in Nature Medicine, atherosclerotic plaques more closely resemble plaques known to be most at risk of rupturing and causing a heart attack or stroke. When the scientists blocked the β3 receptor, though, stressed mice not only had fewer of these dangerous plaques, but also had reduced levels of the active immune cells in their plaques, pinpointing β3 as a key link between stress and atheroscelerosis.

The finding could lead to new drugs to help prevent cardiovascular disease, suggests biologist Lynn Hedrick of the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego, California. “I think this gives us a really direct hint that the β3 receptor is important in regulating the stress-induced response by the bone marrow,” Hedrick says. “If we can develop a drug that targets the receptor, this may be very clinically relevant.”

More immediately, the new observations suggest a way that clinicians could screen patients for their risk of atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke, Tall says. “Rather than asking four questions about stress levels, we could use their white blood cell counts to monitor psychosocial stress,” he says.

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/06/how-stress-can-clog-your-arteries