Chronic Stress and the Brain

It seems everyone knows what “stress” is and what it feels like. Most of us agree that stress typically does not feel very good and places the mind and body in a precarious position. We know many things can cause stress and some of the reaction of being stressed is subjective, based on a personal perception. These examples might include being in traffic, waiting for an elevator, waiting for the doctor, or having to deal with perceived incompetence. However, more life threatening stressors such as near death from a motor vehicle accident, child abuse, sexual trauma, war, etc. can impose a more chronic form of stress.

The brain reacts to stress by having a survival type instinct in which you will either run or fight the stressor. Some research indicates this is primarily a male response and that women may be better at actually working with the stressing agent to ameliorate the stress. Perhaps the latter is a more adaptive response to stress and might relate to the fact that women live longer than men.

If the stressor does not go away the effects of the stress can become chronic and result in a clinical condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic anxiety. Both of these conditions seem to have a hormonal component underlying them in which an explosion of hormones are released in the body—“stress response” and if not turned off can potentially do damage to the body and brain. Some of the hormones such as cortisol and glucocorticoids can actually cause potential damage to the brain.

Animal and some human studies indicate that chronic stress with the persistent hormonal issue described above affects the hippocampus, structurally and functionally. The hippocampus is critical to memory and new learning and it is not coincidental that persons with chronic anxiety or PTSD have memory problems.

Most people understand that it is important to first identify what causes their stress and then to try and develop more adaptive coping strategies to manage the stress in their lives. However, most people probably do not understand that such stress, if not managed can become chronic and may be a negative influence on brain function.

It is a good idea to take some time and list two or three things that represent your chief stressors in life. Once you do this identify how you are presently coping or managing these stressors and try to determine how you might better reduce the negative effects of these stressors on your body and life.

Personalization with Mental Exercise

The market has witnessed a surge in the brain fitness software industry. More companies are purporting to be the best at training your brain and helping to sharpen cognitive or thinking skills.

One primary concern for this industry is to create software that is both fun and personally relevant. In fact, a primary focus of FitBrains is to be the leader of fun and personal relevance within the industry of brain fitness software. I believe that brain games can be both fun and have real life and personal value to a consumer.

We are all confronted with life’s daily challenges, each of which places demands on our brain for solutions or action. It is within this arena that FitBrains has captured the personal value: creating brain games that actually tap into real world challenges for the consumer. How many times have you lost a pair of socks in the laundry, forgotten the name of someone you met, misplaced your car keys or perhaps the car itself in the parking garage? Life provides us with real world games and the opportunity for real world mental exercise.

FitBrains takes this reality and champions brain fitness for the fun and personally relevant. We believe your arousal level will increase and you will be more deeply engaged in our brain games. Why? The task is more valuable or meaningful to you as a person. Companies that simply develop memory games or language games without the value of personal relevance are simply tasks to be completed. Personalization sparks long term commitment by the consumer for a healthy brain.

Mood and Cognitive Functions

Your brain operates electrically and chemically. Neurochemicals form the dynamic foundation for our thoughts and emotions. Many neurochemicals have been identified while many more have not. Neurochemicals important to mood include Serotonin, Neuropinephrine, Neuroadrenaline, and Dopamine. These neurochemicals remain in healthy balance for most of us, but for some there is imbalance and a mood disorder can result.

Effects of a mood disorder such as depression or mania include functional decline, interpersonal difficulty, and cognitive impairment. Depression is far more common than realized and represents a major chronic illness similar to high blood pressure. Depression not only affects the specific person, but it can also affect negatively those close to the patient and to potential colleagues. Depression and mania impairs thinking by reducing focus, attention, memory, and ability to execute plans. A depressed brain cannot process as deeply as necessary and this can result in rather significant cognitive impairment at times. Uncontrolled mania results in high distractibility, poor attention, and generally impaired cognitive functions across the board.

Treatments for mood disorder are effective and include use of antidepressants, mood stabilizers for mania, psychotherapy, and following a brain health lifestyle as espoused by Dr. Nussbaum (www.paulnussbaum.com). Use of software similar to that of FitBrains that helps to stimulate mental activity can also be of some use for a brain that may be sluggish. The most important thing is to first identify depression when it arises, take it seriously, and get some help.

Alzheimer’s Disease in the United States

A leading cause of brain disease in the United States is Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Named after Dr. Alzheimer who published a paper in 1907 describing the cognitive and functional decline of a female patient, this disease now affects nearly 5 million people. It is estimated that those affected by AD will triple by 2050.

AD is the leading cause of progressive dementia. The disease typically erodes memory, spatial functions, language, personality and functional ability. The course of the disease approximates 10-12 years and those over the age of 85 are most at risk. Additional risk factors include female gender, family history of dementia, mood disorder, diabetes, and stroke. The cause is not known and there are no known cures or prevention.

Treatments exist to help reduce the impact of particular symptoms and early detection has advanced significantly. New treatments are being researched and these should be to market in the near future. Lifestyle for brain health has also generated new attention and interest. One aspect of a brain health lifestyle is mental stimulation, a primary function of FitBrains.

If your loved one is experiencing memory loss and there is some concern about this change it is advised that he or she receive a comprehensive dementia examination. This will help to discern if the memory and other cognitive changes fall outside the range of normal and if dementia is present. Early detection is important because existing treatments can be started.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a clinical term used to describe loss of general intelligence, forgetfulness, language or other cognitive disturbance, personality change, and functional decline. There are nearly 70 or more causes of dementia, with the most common cause attributed to Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Other common causes of dementia include Vascular dementia (VaD), Lewy Body Dementia, Alcohol and substance based dementia, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression, head injury, seizure disorder and many others.

Most causes of dementia are irreversible meaning the dementia will not be cured or get better. Only 3-5% of dementias are considered reversible. Examples of reversible dementia include B-12 deficiency, depression, and thyroid disorder. Alzheimer’s disease, the leading type of irreversible dementia affects those primarily over the age of 65. There is no know cause of AD nor is there any cure at this time.

Medications exist to treat the symptoms of dementia without actually stopping the underlying disease process. Often persons with dementia can become depressed, anxious, or even psychotic. These co-morbid conditions can be effectively treated with psychotropic medication, structure and a supervised environment.

Dementia extracts an enormous emotional toll and financial toll on families. Caregiving is fast becoming a major issue for baby boomers. Primary caregivers often suffer fatigue, depression, and physical illness as they wear down with the new role. Unfortunately dementia will become a bigger problem as the number of older persons on the planet increases.