5 Surprising Things That Age You
What it ages: Your brain
The science: Anxiety and stress can shrink your hippocampus, and in people already experiencing the cognitive decline that can lead to Alzheimer's, they could potentially speed up the progression of the disease.
Your hippocampus controls memory formation and also plays a role in regulating your emotions. It naturally gets smaller as we age, but a review in Current Opinion in Psychiatry found that stress can cause structural damage and accelerate the shrinking process. "Cortisol is released when you're stressed and cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus," explains lead study author Linda Mah, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and clinical scientist at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. Before you get stressed and anxious about how stress and anxiety are affecting your brain, know this: The researchers concluded that "pathological anxiety and chronic stress" are the real dangers, meaning the kind that's unrelenting and never seems to go away. If you think that's what you're experiencing, talk to your doctor about ways to manage it.
Dr. Mah led another study in 2014 focusing on people with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. (MCI is considered a precursor to Alzheimer's. Not everyone with MCI develops Alzheimer's, but almost all cases of Alzheimer's start as MCI.) Subjects who experienced anxiety at any time were more likely to progress to Alzheimer's during the three-year study. The more severe the anxiety, the higher the risk.
What you can do: You've heard this before, but managing your stress levels is incredibly important. Exercise may be particularly helpful in dealing with work worries, according to a new study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, which reported that being physically fit helped protect against the health effects of work-related stress.