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Stress Management: Reaction to stress may affect brain health

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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.

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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.

Over the 2.5 year period, the participants completed the exercises up to 30 times. The researchers also asked the participants to talk about the stressors they had been subjected to that day, as well as about the stressors experienced by their family members and other close friends.

The seniors rated their feelings during a stressful moment using a range of positive and negative emotions, as well as a scale of intensity. Finally, they also completed a checklist on physical symptoms.



Stress response affects brain health

Overall, the study found that people whose response to daily stressors involved more negative emotions and were of higher intensity had higher inconsistencies in their response time, suggesting poorer mental focus and brain health.

The research also revealed significant age differences. For instance, the older participants — who were in their late 70s and up to their late 90s — were most affected. That is, their high-stress reactivity correlated strongly with worse cognitive performance.

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However, for those in their late 60s to mid-70s, more stress seemed to benefit their cognitive health. “These relatively younger participants may have a more active lifestyle to begin with, more social and professional engagement, which could sharpen their mental functioning,” Stawski speculates.

The study’s lead investigator adds that older seniors should pay more attention to their emotional response to daily stressors and try to reduce their stress where possible to preserve their cognitive health well into old age.

“We can’t get rid of daily stressors completely,” Stawski says, “[b]ut endowing people with the skills to weather stressors when they happen could pay dividends in cognitive health.”

The findings are highly relevant, adds Stawski, given that the population aged 80 and above is the “world’s fastest growing age group.” Indeed, a report issued by the National Institutes of Aging in 2009 found that the world’s “oldest-old” are “the fastest growing component of many national populations.”

In this context, brain health and cognition are particularly important, as the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are on the rise globally, along with the aging population.

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24 Hours Across Africa

Tanzania: officials summons WHO over Ebola claims

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Tanzania’s government has summoned the World Health Organisation’s local representative over claims that they’re concealing information on Ebola virus infections in the country.

On Saturday, WHO said in a statement that it had learned of one suspected fatal case in the main city, Dar es Salaam, and two other infections but, despite repeated requests, was given no information.

Last week, Tanzania said it had no confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola.

Government spokesman Hassan Abbasi said on Twitter that the ministry of foreign affairs had summoned the WHO’s Tigest Ketsela Mengestu to obtain “in-depth details from the agency on reports circulating in the media”.

A short video clip has also been posted on the ministry’s Twitter account, showing Dr Tigest clarifying at a meeting with Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Damas Ndumbaro that the WHO did not say there was Ebola in Tanzania:

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WHO rejects claims to issue a statement on existence of Ebola in Tanzania.

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More than 2,100 people have died during the current Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

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WHO accused Tanzania of hiding information on Ebola victims

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Ebola virus has cause major loss of life and socioeconomic disruption in Africa.

The number of cases has began to decline gradually, following the commitment of substantial international resources.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has rebuked Tanzania for failing to provide information about possible Ebola virus infections.

The WHO said it had learned of one suspected fatal case in Dar es Salaam and two others but, despite repeated requests, was given no information

Tanzania has said it has no suspected or confirmed cases.

The latest outbreak has killed more than 2,000 in eastern DR Congo, with Uganda battling to stop any spread.

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