Good brain health is important to a healthy future, and in many cases can reduce your risk for developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Two important ways to bolster your brain health is to reduce stress and improve your sleep quality.

Stress, brain health and the flight or fight response

Research continues to show that stress can damage the brain. Stress produces the flight or fight response in the brain. When things become too overwhelming to manage, we often will find ourselves either shutting down and/or walking away (the flight response) or blowing up (the fight response). 

This type of stress activates a part of the brain that produces a hormone known as cortisol. It also raises our heart rate and increases blood flow to our arms and legs. Our brain is sending signals to our body to prepare to run fast or fight hard. Once the stressful situation is over, our body and brain return to normal.

Occasional or chronic stress

Occasional, moderate stress – the "I work better under pressure" type of stress – may strengthen neural connections in the brain and improve both memory and attention span. However, some individuals experience chronic stress, causing the brain to be in a constant state of flight or fight mode. 

When you are experiencing chronic stress, your cortisol levels are always at a high. As a result, you may experience problems with your digestion, your sleep, and your immune system. Research suggests that if your brain is constantly in that flight or fight mode, it cannot function normally, and you may have issues with memory and thinking. 

Even mild stress can cause us to be forgetful, but if your brain is constantly in flight or fight mode, it may have difficulty switching into memory mode. Thus, you might say you “can’t think straight” or “can’t remember anything” when you’re stressed.

Sleep and brain health

Sleep is another important factor when considering brain health. Most adults should be getting seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night. If you are not waking feeling refreshed and ready to start the day, you are most likely experiencing poor sleep quality. Without quality sleep, your brain has trouble with learning and memory. It’s harder to focus and to pay attention.

Sleep becomes more of an issue for us as we age. After age 60 our sleep tends to be shorter, lighter, and interrupted. We may also be on more medications that affect our ability to sleep. In women, menopause symptoms, especially night-sweats and hot-flashes, can wreak havoc with our sleep cycles. 

If you are having issues with chronic stress or poor-quality sleep, you may be putting your brain at greater risk for developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important that you speak with your health care professional and work together to find a successful way to treat these issues. Your brain will be stronger and better able to perform if your stress level is down and your sleep quality is up. 

For more information on memory disorders, visit our website.

Chuang Kuo-Wu, MD, PhD, and Theresa Fogerty

Dr. Chuang Kuo-Wu, PhD, is a neurologist and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital. 

Terry Fogerty is the community outreach coordinator in the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital.