Your Brain Wants You to Be Mellow: New Evidence Shows Chronic Emotional Stress Can Increase the Risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment in Later Life

So you’ve been putting off getting therapy, even though most of the time you feel anxious and upset? Well, a new study suggests that you may be putting your brain in danger.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, followed more than 1200 men and women who were 65 and older, average age of about 76. At the beginning of the study they made sure that none of them had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and measured their emotional distress using a simple 6 item scale of neuroticism. Items such as 1) “Are you the type of person whose feelings are easily hurt?”; 2) “Are you the type of person who is rather nervous?”; and 3) “Are you the type of person who is a worrier?” make up this scale.

At the beginning of the study the average score was about 15 on this emotional distress scale. Patients were followed up for up to 12 years. About 38% developed MCI during the study. Those in the top 10% of emotional distress at the beginning of the study were about 40% more likely to develop MCI.

What is interesting is this relationship held even after researchers statistically removed the effects of depressive symptoms at the beginning of the study. So the results were from emotional distress, not from depression. The risk for MCI increased by 2% for every 1 point increase on the distress scale. This is a pretty strong correlation.

So what does this mean? I think what it means is that chronic emotional upset is hard on the brain. It makes sense, since emotional stress raises stress hormones such as cortisol, which we know can damage the brain, especially the hippocampus, which controls memory. What we don’t know is whether this study was picking up some early brain changes in the elderly, changes which correlate with both emotional distress AND a tendency to develop MCI. A better study would look at younger people, and see if emotional distress in those aged 40 or 50 leads to the development of MCI in later life.

Since about a third of those with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s Disease, any reductions in the prevalence of MCI would be tremendously beneficial to society. Perhaps psychotherapy should be mandatory for all those over 65!

What can you do to lower your brain risk? First of all, honestly evaluate whether you suffer chronic emotional stress. Ask yourself if most of the time you feel calm and happy, or upset and worried and stressed. Also ask your close friends and/or family what they think. If you are someone who suffers chronic stress, then get help. A cognitive behavioral psychologist can teach you good stress management skills, and may help break lifelong patterns of emotional stress. Another good option is to learn mindfulness meditation and yoga and practice them daily. These are known to reduce psychological distress.

Whatever you do, don’t take it lightly if you are in long term distress. Your brain wants you to be mellow!

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

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