We’ve known for some time now that chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is often associated with measurable changes in the actual structure of the brain – most specifically in the hippocampus of the limbic system. The limbic system is in charge of memory and emotion. So it’s not surprising that an overwhelmingly traumatic experience would cause changes in that area.
What we didn’t know was that garden-variety chronic stress, the kind we all can experience when things get to be too much, can also cause the structure of the brain to change. In a study published in November 2009 in the journal Neuroreport, it was found that rats who endured long-term stress showed measurable, significant shrinkage of the hippocampus in their brains.
OK, you may be saying, “But I’m not a rat!” Well, it turns out that rats and humans have a lot in common when it comes to stress and how we respond to it. A lot of what we know about stress in humans was observed in rats first – and confirmed in humans afterward.
What does this mean to us? Well, it’s too soon to tell for sure, but it suggests that the forgetfulness, irritability, trouble sleeping, and other signs of stress may be due in part to changes in the limbic system’s ability to regulate itself. And over time, it means that if we don’t learn to manage stress, we could be putting our brains at risk – along with our hearts and waistlines.
I know I say this over and over again, but it’s true – moderate exercise is a fundamental part of staying healthy. Research shows that exercise can increase the number of cells in the hippocampus, keeping it working well into old age – staving off the ravages of memory problems and other signs of dementia. So keep walking! Or running… Or dancing…