New research finds that our response to even minor daily stressors, such as getting stuck in traffic or queuing for too long at the supermarket, can affect how healthy our brain is, particularly into old age.

Prolonged chronic stress can lead to a wide range of adverse health consequences, from diabetes, heart disease, and sexual dysfunction, to mental health conditions, such as depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even schizophrenia.

Zooming in on the effects that stress has on the brain, recent studies have suggested that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol may impair memory.

But how do small, daily stressors affect the aging brain? New research, led by Robert Stawski, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon’s State University in Corvallis, suggests that it is not so much the stressful events in themselves, but our reactions to them that harm our brain health.

Specifically, Stawski and colleagues examined how seniors’ response to everyday stressors, such as a traffic jam, affects their cognitive health.

The findings are available in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.

Studying stress and cognitive health

Stawski and colleagues examined 111 seniors aged between 65 and 95 for 2.5 years. Throughout the study period, the researchers evaluated the participants’ cognitive health using standardized assessments every 6 months.

Some of these assessments included asking the seniors to look at two sets of numbers and then say if the same numbers appeared in the two sets, albeit in a different order.

Previous studies have suggested that performance in these tests is an indicator of so-called response time inconsistency — a marker of impaired cognitive processing and poor brain health.

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