How Adverse Life Events Can Trigger a Spiral of Cognitive Decline

By on February 23, 2016
How Adverse Life Events Can Trigger a Spiral of Cognitive Decline

By Joan Parsons–

Lifestyle – how we live each day – can have a profound impact on health across the lifespan. Making the right lifestyle choices can greatly improve health and longevity. Conversely, making unhealthy choices can contribute to cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.

Balanced daily activities that include learning, physical exercise, socializing and playful engagements help ensure our choices match the types and frequency needed to weave together a ‘brain protective’ lifestyle. These should be grounded by a healthy diet and 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Lifelong educational and physical activity in particular help to build ‘cognitive reserves’ to draw upon in the event of injury, illness or other events that disrupt our intent to lead healthy lives.

Even with our very best efforts to maintain brain and overall health, injuries and disruptive life events create vulnerability for adults at every age. Evidence suggests that we hit many such crisis points from middle age onward, when adverse events create periods of high vulnerability that can trigger a spiral of deterioration. Such events increase with age and when cognitive reserves are low. Odds are strong we will all encounter crisis points, so it is critical to recognize them and initiate countermeasures to keep our brains and bodies as resilient as possible and avoid the slippery slope of decline.

  1. Immobility and temporary or chronic pain

Beginning in middle age our bodies don’t recover as quickly as in our youth. We can succumb to balance issues, plantar fasciitis, back injuries and pain, arthritis and illness. Pain from injuries can affect mood, create irritability and lower tolerances. Medications and immobility may cause us to become temporarily dependent. Sleep disturbances are often a byproduct of immobility. When mishaps affect our mobility we need to pay close attention, as even a week or two of immobility can have large effects on muscle mass, flexibility, fitness and overall health.

Within two weeks of being more sedentary, one study showed previously healthy young and old men began to develop metabolic problems, including serious insulin resistance.

  1. Depression

Depression increases with age and is often triggered by loss and changes; loss of mobility, loss of a job through retirement, the death or illness of loved ones – especially spouses, divorce, changes such as moving to a new house, neighborhood, and even the changing seasons. Depression leads to behavioral changes and to chemical changes in the brain, which reinforce each other to potentially create a dizzying downward spiral.

  1. Lifestyle imbalances

Imbalances occur from such triggers as excessive stress, work with no play, play with no purposeful work, too much work that doesn’t feel rewarding, not enough exercise or exercising too much in a way that leads to sports injuries (which become harder to recuperate from as we age). Imbalances are reinforced by the tendency to do what is familiar as we age, so we tend to habituate our daily activities. A major rule of brain function is “use it or lose” – meaning we strengthen areas of our brains used frequently, but weaken the underused areas, skills and functions. If we don’t engage in new and challenging activities, this can initiate a harmful downward spiral where underused brain functions become harder and harder to recover. Achieving a balanced lifestyle can raise overall resiliency across the entire lifespan.

  1. Isolation and lack of social connection

Often associated with depression, social isolation can begin a downward spiral. Middle age and beyond often includes big changes in our social connections – children move away triggering empty nest syndrome for some, death or illness of a spouse can cut off access to ‘couples oriented’ social activities, moving house to be closer to our children’s families can cut off old friendships and social connections in the new area.

Because an active social life is at the core of successful aging, anything that disrupts social engagement creates vulnerability.

  1. Sleep disturbances

Chronic insomnia or lack of sleep that becomes perpetual creates very real risk. Anxiety and stresses can cause poor sleep, along with many other contributors such as chronic pain, some medications, jet lag, even a snoring bed partner. Lack of sleep, even for just a few nights, can impact our health by lowering immune response, cognitive function, and ability to make sound decisions. It creates irritability and increases our risk for accidents

We Can Lower Vulnerability to Adverse Life Events

Whenever we stop doing healthy activities such exercise, purposeful work, socializing, sleeping soundly, and eating a healthy diet, we see the negative impact on our bodies within weeks. This includes blood sugar elevation, lower cognitive function, a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, weak muscles and other changes in important biomarkers. The longer we are in these states the greater our vulnerability.

The very best way to counter risk is to create a resilient lifestyle beginning with daily exercise and continuous learning. These are the two pillars that build cognitive reserves, which kick in when you need them to protect your brain from potentially hazardous life events. As motivators to jump start a resilient lifestyle, consider the overwhelming research that supports all of the following: just walking at a good pace contributes to longevity, exercise supports brain health, the sobering statistics on the lack of physical activity, how education saves lives, and conversely the lack of it may be as deadly as smoking.

Here are 7 tips to restore a healthy lifestyle when life events go awry:

  • Recognize when you are at risk and take action
  • Consult your doctor and share your concerns
  • Take advantage of professional help sooner than later, especially for depression
  • Physical therapy is a great counter measure to immobility. PT’s are trained to create recovery and to provide essential motivation
  • Become a ‘vital aging ambassador’ in your social network: learn to recognize depression in loved ones, as they are often unable to do so themselves. Encourage others to seek professional support when they aren’t getting better, reach out to those who have lost social connection and find ways to re-engage them in activities.
  • Consider melatonin or other natural sleep aids. If natural sleep aids don’t work for you, consult your doctor – while some sleep aids carry risks, as long as they are used with caution and for short periods they can restore healthy sleep patterns
  • Stay positive and grateful– the power of gratitude and positivity is health giving and protective, and makes you feel good!



Lifestyle Rewired’s CEO Joan Parsons and Chief Science Officer Dr. Eileen Donahue Robinson have designed travel adventures, programs and tools that support healthy aging brains across the lifespan. LR’s immersion travel adventures activate neural pathways by inspiring learning, new experiences, and meaningful human connection.

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How Adverse Life Events Can Trigger a Spiral of Cognitive Decline