How exactly stress affects the brain is still an evolving science, Finney explained. “Chronic stress creates a number of biochemical changes in the body, including increasing cortisol levels, which can lead to a cascade of increase in other chemicals that can trigger cell death,” he said. Psychological stress overtime can kill brain cells, Finney added. Research has shown that chronic stress may reduce brain size and cause impaired memory in middle-aged adults.
Homocysteine is an amino acid that studies have pegged as a “co-factor in memory loss,” according to Finney. A simple blood test can show homocysteine’s levels in the blood. “Doctors regularly screen for it in people presenting memory problems,” Finney said. The good news is that the amino acid’s levels can be easily treated with supplements and/or simple diet changes (less meat), he noted. Homocysteine can be a risk factor for vascular disease, which is the second biggest cause of dementia in the U.S. This is because of impaired blood and oxygen flow to the brain, Finney explained.
Diabetes is the most common illness associated with generalized brain atrophy, according to Finney. Generalized brain atrophy is when the entire brain has shrunk as opposed to parts of it (focal atrophy). If the condition remains uncontrolled, it becomes a major risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, he noted. Chronically high glucose levels in the blood can damage many organs in the body, including the brain, he explained. Too much sugar can impair functional connectivity (how brain regions are linked) and brain matter, leading to shrinkage, according to Harvard Medical School.
4. High blood pressure
“Blood pressure is becoming a very important target for protecting brain health,” Finney said. This is one reason the high blood pressure standard level, which is recommended as healthy, has been lowered, he noted. The new definition of hypertension, according to the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, is blood pressure higher than 130 over 80. It used to be 140 over 90 until 2017. Narrower blood vessels and blockage of the arteries as a result of high blood pressure can impair blood and oxygen flow to the brain, which, in the long-term, can lead to mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
“Anything that reduces oxygen to the brain can lead to brain shrinkage,” Finney said. When inhaled, tobacco, more specifically nicotine, has many damaging properties. It is toxic to neuron cells, Finney added. It can lead to increased oxidative stress and cell death. Smoking is a huge risk factor for vascular disease and abnormal condition of the blood vessels, which have been linked to brain damage and a decline in thinking skills.
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