Although much remains to be learned about the causes of mental decline, it has been well documented recently that stress is an important contributing factor, including to the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. A research team in Sweden observed in a recently published 38-year study of 800 women that “psychosocial stressors in midlife were associated with incidence of AD (Alzheimer’s disease) and long-standing distress, over several decades.” The study, conducted at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, concluded “this suggests that common psychosocial stressors may have severe and long-standing physiological and psychological consequences.”
Alzheimer‘s, Stress and the Decline in Memory and Other Brain Functions
Deterioration of memory and other brain functions are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, which, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, affected an estimated 5.2 million people in the United States in 2013. The figure includes about 5 million people 65 or older and 200,000 under 65 who have what is called “younger-onset Alzheimer’s.”
Whereas short-term stress, which raises cortisol levels for short periods, can be beneficial, long-term stress can lead to prolonged increases in cortisol, which can be toxic to the brain. Scientists suspect high levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, over long periods are key contributors to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, which severely impair short-term memory and other cognitive functions.
While today it is common to know or know of someone with Alzheimer’s, it may be the norm in the future. In just five years, the Alzheimer’s Association predicts, there will a 40 percent increase in the number of people 65 or older afflicted with the disease and nearly a 300 percent increase by 2050, providing there is no breakthrough in treatment to slow or cure it.
My father is among the many people who have been touched by a disease the Alzheimer’s Association says “is the only cause of death among the top 10 in America without a way to prevent it, cure it or even slow its progression.”
My father had Alzheimer’s for eight years. It is a tough disease. He was quite brilliant, had an economics degree and was a three-star general in the Marines. It was so disheartening to see his cognitive functions just melt away. I do believe all the stressors of wars added to the severity of the disease.
How Stress Affects Heart Coherence
While research to understand, alleviate and cure Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and cognitive impairment has intensified in the last decade, great strides have been made toward interventions that focus on reducing stress without drugs. Along with the kinds of positive emotion-based techniques Institute of HeartMath (IHM) has been developing since the early 1990s, is a heart focused meditation.
When we are angry, frustrated, anxious, depressed or feel other negative emotions frequently and for long periods it is likely we are experiencing unhealthy levels of stress, which adversely affect heart coherence.
“Coherence,” Institute of HeartMath Director of Research Dr. Rollin McCraty has written, “is the state when the heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation. It is a state that builds resiliency – personal energy is accumulated, not wasted – leaving more energy to manifest intentions and harmonious outcomes.”
Negative emotions like those noted above can cause our heart-rhythm patterns to become erratic. These erratic patterns affect our mental processes, including blocking our ability to think clearly. They are sent to emotional centers in the brain, which recognizes them as negative, or stressful feelings. Learn more about appreciation in the article, An Appreciative Heart Is Good Medicine.
“Meditation has been shown to have positive effects on the brain and can help reverse memory loss as well as help improve psychological and spiritual well-being, which are both important for healthy brain aging,” explains the HeartMath Brain Fitness Program. The book is co-authored by McCraty and Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., president and CEO of HeartMath Inc. The newly published HeartMath Brain Fitness Program explores human cognitive function and the negative effects of stressful emotions on memory and other mental processes. It presents a simple, but effective method, for taking care of your brain and sharpening focus, concentration and memory.
The HeartMath Brain Fitness Five Step Program integrates the use of the emWave or Inner Balance Technologies.
A team of researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center explored whether meditation could prove to be a viable intervention for halting the progression toward dementia in people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). “We wanted to know if stress reduction through meditation might improve cognitive reserve,” said Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, MPH, who led the team.
Following the trials, the basis of which was a program utilizing meditation and mindfulness – nonjudgmental awareness in each moment – the researchers observed positive results in adult participants with mild cognitive impairment.
“These preliminary results indicate that in adults with MCI, MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) may have a positive impact on the regions of the brain most related to MCI and AD (Alzheimer’s disease,)” they stated in the study’s abstract.
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