Keep Calm and Your Brain Will Carry On

Everyone reacts to everyday stress differently, but research suggests that letting it get to you can have negative cognitive effects as you age.


How do you deal with stress? Does a long line up at the post office leave you seething? Or can you brush off someone jumping the queue with barely a second thought? How you respond to this type of daily annoyance could have profound implications for cognitive function in later life.

As the global population continues to age, researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Victoria have been examining how stressful experiences, and how we respond to them, influence health, well-being, and cognition in seniors.

The study followed 111 older adults, aged 65 to 95, for 2.5 years. Each participant completed a series of cognitive assessments at six-month intervals; their task was to identify whether three number codes contain the same digits, regardless of order. The test is designed to reflect the speed of information processing, attention, cognitive efficiency, and overall brain health.

Alongside each assessment, participants were also asked about any stressors they, or a loved one, had experienced that day. Participants rated how they felt about these stressors — from arguments to health issues — at the current moment, using a 1-5 scale and an array of positive and negative emotions.

The results suggest that it is not the stressor itself that contributes to mental decline, but how a person responds.

Overall, those who responded to stressful events with strong negative emotions showed greater fluctuations in their performance, suggesting decreased mental focus, cognitive aging and risk for dementia. In contrast, less reactive individuals, particularly those in their late 60s to mid-70s, might actually benefit from these annoyances.

“These results confirm that people’s daily emotions and how they respond to their stressors play an important role in cognitive health,” said Robert Stawski, the study’s lead author. “We can’t get rid of daily stressors completely, but endowing people with the skills to weather stressors when they happen could pay dividends in cognitive health.”

These findings contribute to a growing understanding that stress is a risk factor for age-related declines in mental, physical and cognitive health, including diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

So, next time you are faced with a minor annoyance, take a deep breath and try to take it in stride.

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise