Taking in stride those day-to-day annoyances, such as a traffic jam or long line at the bank, may help protect brain health in older adults, while reacting to these stressors with negative emotions could contribute to cognitive decline, according to a new study published online in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

“These results confirm that people’s daily emotions and how they respond to their stressors play an important role in cognitive health,” said lead author Dr. Robert Stawski, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University (OSU).

“It’s not the stressor itself that contributes to mental declines but how a person responds that affects the brain.”

The new findings contribute to a growing body of evidence showing how daily stress may be a risk factor for compromised mental, physical and cognitive health. The study has vital real-world implications, seeing as the world’s fastest growing age group is adults 80 and over, said Stawski.

As we get older, keeping our brain and cognitive processes in good working order is very important, as they contribute to our ability to function in day-to-day life and can reflect diseases including dementias and Alzheimer’s.

For the study, the research team followed 111 older adults, ranging in age from 65 to 95, for 2½ years. Every six months, the volunteers participated in a series of cognitive evaluations for six days over a two-week period.

During the assessments, participants looked at a series of two strings of numbers and were asked whether the same numbers appeared in the two strings, regardless of order.

Past research has linked fluctuations in how quickly people can do this exercise with decreased mental focus, cognitive aging and risk for dementia as well as structural and functional brain changes that reflect poor cognitive health. The volunteers completed the numbers exercises for up to 30 sessions over the 2½-year period.

The participants also reported stressors experienced that day by themselves, a family member or a close friend and rated how they felt when it happened. They chose from a wide variety of positive and negative emotions and a range of intensity and filled out a checklist of physical symptoms.

In the overall comparison, those who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions and expressed a more sour mood in general showed greater fluctuations in their performance, suggesting worse mental focus and cognitive health among the more negative and reactive people.

But by tracking each person over time, the researchers were able to investigate what happened on an individual basis, allowing striking age differences to emerge. For the oldest participants — late 70s to mid-90s — being more reactive to stressors was tied to worse cognitive performance.

In contrast, people in their late 60s to mid-70s actually did better on the test if they reported more stressors. “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 said.

Source: Oregon State University