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The Case of the Stress-Filled Shrinking Brain

I told myself I needed to move on. I’d covered the issue of stress numerous times in the past, most recently in April. Then I read the following news: According to a recently released study published in the journal Neurology, stress might be tied to a slight shrinking of the brain. In a study of more than 2,000 healthy, middle-aged volunteers, doctors found that those with a higher hormone indicator of stress performed more poorly on memory tests and had a slightly shrunken brain volume compared to those with a normal level of the hormone.

The new study found stress to impair memory and quicken cognitive decline later in life, but the findings do not mean that stress causes brain damage. They merely suggest an association between stress and brain function.

As I pointed out in April, though the word “stress” was coined more than 50 years ago, it continues to lack an agreed-upon clinical definition. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 8.3 million American adults suffer from serious psychological distress. This equates to approximately 3.4 percent of the U.S. population.

Serious psychological distress is an umbrella term for a condition that runs from general hopelessness and nervousness all the way up to diagnosable conditions such as depression and anxiety. Persistently higher stress hormone levels have also been shown to cause damage to the heart and skin.

Stress response is a natural part of life. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It can play an important function in motivating people to be alert, energetic and focused. This is especially true in times of trouble. It is when we let stress become a constant presence that it can wreak havoc on our bodies.

Efforts to reduce stress can have a range of benefits, according to the study, whether they are accomplished through better sleep, exercise, relaxation techniques or asking one’s doctor about stress hormone-reducing medication. That is the good news: Chronic stress is a treatable condition.

Among the 16 million Americans today who serve as unpaid caregivers to someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, this is an important and possibly life-saving message.

As reported by Time magazine, research shows that Alzheimer’s caregivers face significant physical, financial and mental burdens. Because the costs associated with caregiving for these patients can be astronomical, the responsibility often falls upon loved ones rather than professionals. The number of loved ones thrust into this situation is growing. A recent study estimated that Alzheimer’s diagnoses will more than double over the next four decades as the U.S. population ages.

A survey commissioned by the Associated Press suggests that approximately a third of loved-one caregivers struggle to manage their own health and have skipped going to the doctor because of their duties — even when they were sick or injured. That is especially concerning given that dementia caregivers are an aging group; an estimated 34 percent of them are 65 or older. Research suggests that dementia caregivers have higher levels of stress and depression than other types of caregivers, given the progressive nature of Alzheimer’s. According to the nonprofit advocacy group UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers also say they face financial problems because of their caregiving role.

More researchers and organizations are now recognizing these stresses as a unique area of concern. The National Institutes of Health is currently studying how stress-management training (along with social support) reduces symptoms of depression and improves caregivers’ mental health. Mindfulness and emotional-awareness training can ease caregivers’ stress.

What about the rest of us garden-variety stress monkeys? A hug might be in order.

According to a new study, the simple act of a hug can have a measurable impact on a person’s mood and their stress after social conflict. As outlined in a paper published in PLOS One by Carnegie Mellon University’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease, hugs are associated with an uptick in positive mood markers and a reduction in negative ones. The benefits could even carry over into the next day.

In many instances, a silently administered hug may be all that is needed.

Studies have also found that when people receive added social support from friends or family members, it can sometimes make matters worse. This is attributed to well-meaning but counterproductive behavior such as giving unsolicited advice or jumping straight into problem-solving, unintentionally making them feel incompetent or criticized. A more implicit show of support, such as physical touch or doing someone a favor, could well be a better strategy. Experts note that touch can prompt beneficial physiological changes, such as reductions in stress-related brain and heart activity and the release of a mood-enhancing substance to the brain.

“Hugs, at least among close others, might be a simple, straightforward, effective way to show support to someone you care about who is experiencing conflict with a relationship in their life,” says co-author Michael Murphy, a post-doctoral researcher in Carnegie Mellon University, in Time magazine.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay