To find out, I got in touch with Robert Sapolsky, PhD, a neuroscientist at Stanford and the author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, which explores the effects of long-term stress on the body and brain. Sapolsky explained that when we're stressed, two areas of the brain crucial to learning and memory, the hippocampus and frontal cortex, are flooded with hormones called glucocorticoids, which help our body prioritize what's most important in a crisis. These hormones maximize our strength and energy—in case we need to flee a predator, for example—while temporarily shutting down less essential functions, such as maintaining connections between neurons in our brain. (You don't want to spend precious mental energy consolidating memories when you're trying to outrun a saber-toothed tiger.) But chronic stress has us releasing glucocorticoids nonstop. "As a result, the hippocampus and frontal cortex continually back-burner their housekeeping duties of cleaning up connections between neurons," says Sapolsky. Over time, that can cause these neurons to function poorly, potentially leaving us vulnerable to cognitive decline.

The big question—and one Rajita Sinha, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology and director of the Yale Stress Center, gets a lot—is whether the brain can bounce back after periods of chronic stress. "Everyone wants to know if they can recover from the damage," says Sinha. "And actually, we think they can, but the extent to which neurons can be repaired is still not clear. We've learned that the brain is very dynamic in the way it can restore itself after stress." So while the neurons I may have damaged during my months of fretting might be damaged for good, it's possible that once the glucocorticoid flood subsides, the brain may begin creating new neural pathways and potentially even new neurons. (It's like taking a detour on a highway: You eventually get to the same place but by a different route.)

The key to getting back in tip-top neurological shape is, forgive the pun, a no-brainer. Research indicates that if we make a conscious effort to calm down after a traumatic event with a range of stress reduction techniques—cognitive-behavioral therapy, regular exercise, strong social support and mindfulness activities like yoga and meditation—we may help prevent further neural damage.

While the research on stress reduction and dementia is relatively new, some animal studies and a few small human trials have shown that certain strategies for calming down can help increase the number of the neurons and neural connections that make up gray matter. A Harvard study found that among a group of adults between ages 25 and 55, those who meditated and practiced yoga for about three hours per week over the course of eight weeks showed significant increases in gray matter of the left hippocampus, which helps facilitate our ability to store information and recall it later.

It's impossible to predict whether I'll dodge the Alzheimer's bullet, of course, but I'm glad to know that all my downward dogs, triangle poses and deep breaths are making my neurons happy. So I'll keep it up, look for other ways to soothe my mind and try to trust that somehow everything—including my neurons—will be okay.

Laura Hilgers is a writer in Marin County, California.


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