Stressed out Australian brains

Dementia

by Kate Della-Vedova

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4 years ago dementia was ranked as the 4th most debilitating cause of disease and injury burden; in 2017, nation-wide dementia was the 2nd leading cause of death.  Since 2003, the disability burden of dementia has risen by 56.8%. It’s the FASTEST growing disability we have in this country. 

By the time a person has a dementia diagnosis, there’s precious little we can do about it as clinicians/ physicians – it isn’t reversible, it’s incurable; while our healthcare system is really enthusiastic about medicating end-stage dysfunction, call me crazy (I’ve been called worse!) I advocate preventive, subtle lifestyle modifications. In my little pocket of the country, it’s startling to be approached by growing # of people under 40 who approach me with early symptoms of neurodegeneration.  I’m disappointed but not surprised.

STRESS AND THE BRAIN

Let’s differentiate between acute stress and chronic stress. Every living system grows and benefits from acute stress.  When we go to the gym we apply and a small amount of stress to skeletal muscle then we recover and the muscle grows during that recovery period if its nourished with the right nutrients and good sleep.  This is great, small amounts of stress build resilience and adaptive capacity. It is nonsensical to train a muscle over and over and over again and expect the muscle to grow in the absence of a “recovery” period.  This same concept applies to your greatest and biggest muscle your brain: when applying psychological or physiological stress ad nauseam and not giving your brain any recovery period you are creating an environment where the brain well breakdown it will atrophy and your neurons are going to up sticks, slow down, degenerate.  

Here are  some real world examples of chronic psychological stress: feeling like you have too much work to do and aren’t coping with the load, not having enough time for yourself to pursue creative endeavours, inadequate sleep, feeling trapped in toxic relationships with peers or your partner, hating your job, not enjoying things that used to bring you great joys, like art or music or foods …

Chronic physiological stressors manifest in chronic pain, blood sugar instabilities, environmental toxins, chronic/ recurrent infections, autoimmune attacks, systemic inflammation.

Our imaginary friend here, Brenda – she’s 34, loathes her jo, can’t get quality sleep as she’s beset by anxiety in the middle of the night realising she’s about to miss a deadline… and she has chronic lower back pain (statistically that’s likely, it’s the 2nd leading cause of disability in Australia). Brenda’s state of chronic stress is shown in her blood chemistry, her cortisol and IL-6 are off the map.  

When cortisol and IL-6 are elevated over protracted periods the first organ to really get affected is Brenda’s master control system: her brain.

  1. The hippocampus degenerates the fastest; you’ll start to lose  aspects of your declarative memory so you’ll forget what the capital of Australia is, or what you had for dinner 3 nights ago, you’ll lose visuospatial processing capacity and trip over objects more easily.
  2. Your BBB permeability breaks down, you’re more susceptible to neuroinflammation and neuroautoimmunity – your brain can’t keep pathogens outside of your central nervous system.
  3. Lastly, the brain will atrophy. It legitimately shrinks as these inflammatory compounds starve the brain of nutrients.  Stress has the same effect on the brain that immobilising a limb does, it shrinks because it’s not receiving the right ratio of oxygen, nutrients and stimulation.  

A brain that’s in this catabolic state is on a fast track to dementia.  The good news is! Switching trains and getting off the dementia express, all you need are two things, a pen and paper.

SET A WORRY SCHEDULE. I use 5 minutes per day.  That’s my worry time. You’d be surprised how setting a worry alarm for 5 minutes once per day liberates you for the rest of the day.  WHen a worrying thought creeps in I check my watch and say “WAIT A MINUTE” it’s not 5pm yet. Invariably at 5pm I don’t have that thing to stress over anymore.

SET TIME ASIDE ON PAPER. Diarise for one day a week where you go OFF grid, make ZERO plans. I do this once per week for either a day or half day as my schedule allows and I turn off my wifi, put all of my devices in the bottom of a laundry cupboard. The domino effect this has is really beauitful,the week can carry on but i’ve got in my arsenal 12 hours of NOTHING. And the brain responds to that! 

Quick note, tell your friends and family you’re going off grid, historically when my Mum can’t get a hold of me and I know she can’t, I worry that she worries; antithetical to the mission of stressing less”

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Main Topic

Dementia, stress, ageing, disability, lifestyle change, public health