Don’t sweat the small stuff: Taking daily annoyances in stride preserves brain health in older people
02/16/2019 // Zoey Sky // Views

Stress is a normal part of life, but did you know that emotional reactions to daily annoyances affect your brain health? According to a study, staying calm despite a minor inconvenience like a traffic jam on your way to work may help preserve brain health as you age. Meanwhile, reacting strongly to stress is linked to cognitive decline.

The study, which was published in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, was conducted by researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) and the University of Victoria (UVic).

How do daily stressors affect your cognitive health?

Robert Stawski, the study's lead author, explained that the study findings prove that daily emotions and how a person responds to stressors have a crucial role in their cognitive health. Stawski's field of study also includes how stressful experiences affect an individual's health, well-being, and cognition.

The study co-authors are Eric Cerino and Dakota Witzel, both OSU students, and Stuart W.S. MacDonald from UVic.

Stawski, who is also an associate professor at OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences, added that the stressor itself that doesn't contribute to mental decline. In fact, it's how an individual behaves when faced with stressors that affect the brain.

The results of this study add to mounting evidence regarding "daily stress as a risk factor for compromised mental, physical, and cognitive health." Stawski added that the findings have crucial real-world applications, especially since the world's fastest growing age group is made up of adults who are aged 80 and above.


Brain health and cognition are crucial as you age. They contribute to your ability to function in daily life, and compromised brain function may indicate conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

In the study, researchers monitored 111 elderly volunteers for two-and-a-half years. The participants were aged 65 to 95.

Every six months, the volunteers took part in a series of cognitive assessments for six days over a two-week period. During the assessments, the participants looked at a series of two strings of numbers then they were asked if the same numbers appeared in the two strings, regardless of order.

Earlier studies have associated fluctuations in how quickly individuals can accomplish this exercise with decreased mental focus, cognitive aging, and risk for dementia along with structural and functional brain changes that indicate poor cognitive health.

All the volunteers finished the numbers exercises for about 30 sessions over the study period.

The researchers also asked the participants about stressors that they experienced that day by themselves, a family member, or a close friend. The elderly volunteers then rated how they felt right at that moment by choosing from different positive and negative emotions and a range of intensity. The participants also filled out a checklist of physical symptoms.

According to the overall comparison, the participants who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions and reported a more dour mood in general had greater fluctuations in their performance.

Stress management and brain health

The researchers followed each participant over time to track what happened on an individual basis. They found striking age differences, with the oldest participants (those in their late 70s to mid-90s) being more reactive to stressors than usual. This also contributed to worse cognitive performance.

On the other hand, volunteers who were in their late 60s to mid-70s did better on their test, even if they reported more stressors. Stawski noted that the relatively younger participants may already have a more active lifestyle and more social and professional engagement. These factors could improve their mental functioning. (Related: Reduce stress, improve health as you age by taking up gardening.)

He added that older adults need to be aware of their emotional reactions to stressful events. By practicing stress-lowering strategies, the elderly can preserve brain health and cognitive function. Other ways to manage stress include attending a mind-body program designed for seniors, getting a pet, or joining a support group, especially if you are dealing with bereavement.

Stawski concluded that while it's impossible to completely eliminate daily annoyances, it's important to give people the skills they need to properly deal with their stressors when they happen so they can preserve their cognitive health.

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