You are 50 years old and struggling with things that have always been easy. You are pretty good at hiding your memory slip-ups: the names you can’t remember, the meeting action items you never followed through on, the multiple passwords and user names you can’t keep track of. Most people don’t notice the fact that all day long you compulsively check the date on your phone and completely forget what you did over the weekend. You don’t just misplace your keys and your wallet, but you find them in the strangest locations and have no recollection of ever placing them there.
After a few months of this, you really start to worry about your brain. The stress of trying to remember ordinary, essential information paired with the stress of worrying about your declining cognition is making it hard to act normal. Your ability to sleep, which isn’t great anyway, is worse now that you lie in bed and wonder if you’re losing your mind. You can’t keep up this charade much longer. The writing is on the wall. You are so anxious and worried that you snapped at your loved ones over dinner. You’re irritable, but who wouldn’t be? A drink might take the edge off… or a sleeping pill to knock you out. This is the beginning of the end. Hopelessness and despair set in.
The Good News
Listen, there is no need to jump to conclusions. It is highly unlikely that you have young onset Alzheimer’s disease, and self-medicating your symptoms usually just compounds the issue. There are many causes of brain fog and memory loss that do not indicate a progressive, degenerative process. One of the most common and most manageable causes of memory loss in midlifers is stress.
A recent study in the October issue of Neurology reports a study on over 2000 people- mostly in their 40s- found that those with the highest levels of stress hormones (cortisol) performed worse on cognitive tests, including tests of memory, visual-perception, organization, and attention. Higher cortisol levels (measured in the blood) were also found to correlate to physical changes in the brain (visible on scans).
Many people disregard stress as an actual health risk. They act like “handling” stress is a sign of strength and virility. Actually just the opposite is true. Elevated cortisol levels cause symptoms that mimic dementia, or cause a person to worry that Alzheimer’s disease is just around the corner:
- Sleep disturbances.
- Severe fatigue.
- Muscle weakness.
- Depression, anxiety and irritability.
- Loss of emotional control.
- Cognitive difficulties.
If not managed, chronically elevated cortisol levels lead to more health problems:
- Suppressed immunity
- High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
- Insulin resistance
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes
- Fat deposits on the face, neck, and belly
- Reduced libido
- Bone loss and fractures
Keeping cortisol levels low requires keeping “life” on an even keel. Short bursts of cortisol are fine, as it’s purpose is to ready you for life-saving action. But humans weren’t designed to live in a constant state of stress, and the high levels of cortisol in the blood contribute to a host of medical conditions. How fortunate that most of these issues could be managed or reversed simply by controlling stress!
Get Your Brain Back
Stress is a manageable villain. I wrote about this very thing a year ago. Here are my 7 top recommendations. Don’t let the fact that they seem “soft” or “fluffy” cast doubt on their effectiveness:
- Live simply: Opt out of chaos. Downsize and minimize. Less is more.
- Rise above the noise in your head: Mindfulness training helps you take a bird’s eye view of life and keep things in perspective. It’s not about stillness, it’s about presence. Big difference.
- Breathe Deep: Yoga and breathing exercises help you utilize stress management techniques that are innate abilities available to all human beings.
- Go outside: Nature exposure is a proven antidote to depression and anxiety. Forest bathing is a real thing! The ocean is healing. The mountains are magnificent. A tree, a leaf, a blade of grass, a beetle… such an amazing network of cohabitation. Let your senses take it all in.
- Exercise: Physical exertion helps regulates hormonal balance. It also causes the release of endorphins which create all the good feels.
- Play with your friends: Social connection helps regulate hormones and neurotransmitters- and who doesn’t enjoy a good uptick in serotonin and dopamine every once in a while, with a bonus shot of oxytocin if a warm hug is exchanged?
- Clean up your diet: Stress isn’t just emotional. Cortisol levels can rise from physical stress as well. Don’t tax your system with excess consumption and inflammatory food choices. And don’t let the thought of this stress you!! (The mindfulness training helps focus you on your “why”, not just the “how”).
The truth is that stress management is very difficult given the manic behavior of our society. But it’s not impossible. You carry around all the tools you need in your DNA… you just need to opt out of the circus long enough to use them.