If you were treating a trauma victim the first thing you would do is remove them from the trauma source. You would remove a burn victim from the burning building before treating the burns. In the treatment or prevention of cognitive decline you first want to eliminate the traumatic conditions causing the decline.
That is why I place Contentment at the top of the wellness pyramid, at least for American society. Contentment may sound like a lofty, esoteric, difficult to achieve goal for our society. Let us turn this around. What you need to do at the top of your wellness pyramid is rid your life of stress.
I am encouraged every time I see an article advocating a healthy lifestyle, but then disheartened when, in the comments section, someone reacts: “My spouse was healthy and still got …. I can’t wait until they find a pill.” I doubt many people are as healthy as they think, since many people in our society are stressed. Stressed people are trapped in a figurative burning building in the form of a toxin flooding their bodies.
That toxin is known as cortisol, which our own bodies produce for dealing with problems that cause stress. Cortisol ramps our metabolism for “fight or flight” responses, or for occasional stress episodes. Chronic stress generates too much cortisol that, among other metabolic maladies, induces oxidative stress and aging. Cortisol does not stand alone as the only toxin that could be wreaking havoc with our metabolism, but in our society is likely the most prevalent one
Chronic stress has three causes, what I call flurry, hurry and worry. Flurry stands for mess, chaos, too many different things going on. People have signs for their desks that say “bless this mess,” yet in general we should instead brandish signs that say “mess is stress.”
Most of us would benefit from simplifying our lives. One key to that is having purpose, a guiding light for sifting through the myriad of choices and conflicts that confront us with the complexities we face. I have shared what my purpose is for now: maintain the highest possible quality of life and happiness for Cindy. With that as my undeniable highest priority, I shed myself from conflicting obligations and second guessing that induces stress.
Being hurried is likely the most obvious source of stress for us. Too many obligations mean too many things to do in too short an amount of time. I alleviated my potential “hurry” by choosing to be a full-time caregiver. I have no deadlines save the schedule of daily assisted living tasks for Cindy.
Hurry also provides a great illustration of why stress undermines kindness as well as brain health. You might have the most compassionate of hearts, but find yourself too busy to turn your compassion into kindness. Caregiving is but one example of this principle, while hurry is but one form of stress for which that principle applies. No surprise then, at least not to me, that genuine altruism has been linked to longevity, brain health and emotional health.
Choosing to be a full time caregiver caused financial worry for me. This is the nature of today’s society, where extended families in the same house, or even in the same neighborhood, seldom exist. Eventually I found a way to address that worry, though there are still other minor ones to confront. Fortunately, by eliminating flurry and hurry from my life, leaving only a few worries, my stress is downgraded from chronic to episodic. Our bodies are amazing systems designed to handle the episodic; the chronic creates the problems.
There are other toxins that threaten brain health. I see occasional articles on aluminum though, if I were to guess, alcohol might be the second most profligate toxin. Recent research indicates any more than what amounts to a pint of beer a day increases the chance of dementia by over a third.
Yet I have no doubt that stress-induced cortisol leads the list of toxins threatening our body. For that reason I perch Contentment, the opposite of stress, at the top of the Wellness Pyramid.