Your Youthful Mind

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Health Alert 39

Did you know that too much stress kills brain cells? Research is showing stress to be one of the leading causes of mental deterioration with aging.

For most people, effective anti-aging has to address living better as we age not necessarily living longer. We want to retain the independence and abilities of our youth. For the elders I talk to, loss of mental capacity is the most frightening symptom of aging.

Fortunately, the loss of mental faculties is not inevitable. The most important thing you must do to keep your brain healthy and your mind sharp is avoid excess stress.

* The Physiology of Stress *

Stress has serious physiological effects on the body. When you are stressed, your body produces a hormone called cortisol. In moderate amounts, cortisol is not very harmful. But cortisol is secreted excessively in response to chronic stress. In these larger amounts, cortisol is extremely toxic.

Cortisol actually kills and disables your brain cells. Over your life span, cortisol ruins your brains “biochemical integrity”. Chronic exposure to cortisol causes the mental haziness, forgetfulness, and confusion that is associated with aging.

In anti-aging, most hormonal manipulation involves supporting declining levels. Almost all hormone levels fall as you age. Cortisol is one of the very few exceptions. Cortisol actually rises as you grow older. To regain and keep a youthful mind, you must lower the cortisol levels in your body.

* Attaining Your Mental Clarity *

You can lower levels of cortisol in the body by reducing stress. Here are some simple, but effective ideas to lessen stress:

Use breathing techniques: Breathing techniques can help to calm your body. They aid in releasing stress. I often recommend breathing techniques to my patients. They are simple to do, and are very effective. Once you learn the techniques, you can do them anywhere.

Dr. Andrew Weil has some very good breathing tapes. You can learn more by visiting his website at

Let it out: Writing down problems or talking about them is also effective stress management. Write down your problem and how you feel about it. You will be surprised at the therapeutic effect.

Talking through your problems can also help. An understanding friend or a family member can make a good listener.

Do your favorite thing: Most people have one thing in life that they like to do most. It is the thing that relaxes you and lets you forget about your worries. Golfing, painting, gardening, visiting a special place, or having a picnic can release your mind of the stress of daily living. Set aside time for your favorite thing and do it more often.

Meditate: Meditation can be very simple. It is a time that you use to focus within yourself. Sit or lie in a comfortable position. Listen to your breathing and follow it. Or repeat a word or short phrase that means something. You can speak it or just think it in a rhythm that is comfortable. Clear your mind of worries, and focus on relaxing.

Take 10 or 15 minutes out of your day to do this. You can even meditate as you lie in bed at night. It will be time well spent.

Take care of yourself: Eat a healthy diet and make sure to exercise. Health Alerts 18 and 28 explained my approach to nutrition and exercise. Also remember to take your multivitamin and antioxidants as I described in Health Alert 37. A healthy body and mind go hand and hand.

With these techniques, you should be able to reduce your stress. This eliminates the number one age associated killer of brain cells. It will help you keep a sharp and focused mind at any age.

In a future Health Alert, we will discuss nutrition for the brain.

Al Sears MD