The symptoms of a cold or flu tend to be obvious: fatigue, headache, congestion, and pain. Similarly, if we sustain an injury, we see the scratch, bruise, and can assess the damaged skin or bone. We cannot, however, see our mental states.
What would you do differently if you could witness the changes going on inside of your brain? What would change if you were able to observe, first-hand, the damage that stress, late nights, limited sleep, lack of exercise, take-out food, and everything else associated with working too hard does to your brain? How would this affect your everyday life?
Now, I’m not suggesting that you stop working hard. In fact, many of us have to work longer hours to get through the extraordinary challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, I’m inviting you to consider the long-term effects of working so hard and what you can do to prevent them.
In Bronnie Ware’s best-selling memoir, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the number two regret that people expressed on their deathbeds was: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” More often than not, we wait until the end of life to reflect on what work takes away from our relationships, physical health, and our mental well-being.
So, let’s suppose for one minute that we could take a look inside our brains and our bodies. What would we see?
Stress impacts our immune systems and our memories.
When we’re in a state of stress, the steroidal hormone – cortisol – is released into our bodies and makes us more vulnerable to infections and diseases. Over time, stress has a degenerative effect on the neurons associated with memory and can inhibit the hormones that combat depression. A study funded by the Alzheimer’s Society revealed that prolonged stress can play a significant role in cognitive degeneration, including dementia.
Social exclusion impacts our brains.
Working long hours robs us of time with our families and friends. Yet, studies have consistently shown that the strength and quality of our friendships is what enables us to sustain happiness over time. Being socially excluded activates the same regions of the brain as physical injuries.
Sleep deprivation shortens our lives.
Instead of viewing the ability to function on limited sleep as a badge of honour, we should recognize that rest increases our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices. Sleeping less than six hours a night impacts the immune system – more than doubling the risk of cancer and increasing the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Neuroscientist and sleep researcher, Matthew Walker cites the often-quoted phrase: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” in his book Why We Sleep. By turning the expression on its head, he presents evidence that sleep deprivation is associated with premature death and diminished quality of life.
Exercise is tied to feel-good chemicals.
Even though we all know that sitting at our desks for hours on end is bad for us, we tend to use our excessive workload as an excuse for not getting up and exercising. But a lack of exercise doesn’t just show up on our waistlines, it can result in unhappiness and depression. Incorporating exercise into your daily routine has an immediate, positive impact on your brain, mood, and ability to focus. Exercise releases endorphins that not only result in overall happiness, but protect your brain from conditions like depression and dementia.
What we eat affects our moods.
Trapped at our desks and struggling to meet the next deadline, many of us resort to grabbing take-out food. A study by Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre found that, among people who consume high volumes of sweet drinks, salty snacks, and processed meats, the hippocampus – the region of the brain that plays a vital role in learning, memory and mental health – is smaller. Our brains crave antioxidants from vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds to protect us. Feeding our bodies feeds our brains.
So, what can we do?
In prioritizing your well-being and happiness, the simple act of reflecting on the unseen damage your work has on your brain, mental health, and well-being is a great place to start.
Approximately 50 million people live with dementia worldwide, and this number is projected to increase to 152 million by 2050 (World Health Organization, 2020). In the vast majority of cases, dementia develops as a result of multiple factors, including age, genetics, environment, lifestyle, and underlying medical conditions. Fortunately, there’s strong evidence that people can reduce their risk of developing dementia by making key lifestyle changes – including exercise, stress reduction, diet, social engagement, and building cognitive resilience through meaningful activities.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Act today.
This article is dedicated, with love, to my sister, Jayne, who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease at 62 years old, on July 2, 2020