Ask the Doctor: Chronic Stress & Memory; Mammograms; Watery Eyes

Q: I’ve heard that chronic stress can affect memory. Is that possible?

A: If a person is under long term stress, it is possible that memory can be impaired. This is due to the side effects of a stress hormone called cortisol. If levels of this hormone remain elevated for prolonged periods of time, the functioning of neurons in the hippocampus, a key center for learning and memory, may be affected. In addition, damage to the hippocampus eventually interferes with a natural process that triggers the cortisol-producing mechanism to shut down when a period of stress ends. So, instead of stopping, cortisol continues to be produced, leading to greater damage to the hippocampus. Excess cortisol can also negatively affect other functions, such as the body’s immune system.

There are many ways to reduce stress, including meditation, exercise, and deep conscious breathing. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people how to reframe negative thought patterns, which can also be helpful in reducing stress and its damaging effects.

Q: I’m a 73-year-old woman and very healthy. Are mammograms necessary at my age? I do breast self-exams and I do watch out for any pain or lumps.

A: Being familiar with how your breasts look and feel can help you notice any changes, which should be reported to your doctor. Breast cancer isn’t, however, always something that you can see or feel. In general, breast pain is not a common symptom of breast cancer. Painful breasts are primarily related to hormone shifts, and some older women experience it in menopause. Pain from breast cancer is, however, possible when the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body. Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat, and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms.

While advancing age is a major risk factor for breast cancer, some studies show that incidence declines after age 80. Though for healthy women, observational studies favor extending mammography to older women who have a life expectancy of more than 10 years. Recommendations as to how often to screen vary because study data regarding screening older women are lacking. There have also been some concerns about false-positive results, and detecting and treating cancers that may not become invasive. Recent studies, however, have shown that compared to 2D digital mammography, newer 3D digital mammography reduces recall rates. Medicare covers screening mammograms once every 12 months, and a diagnostic mammogram when medically necessary. Discuss screening options with your doctor to determine how often and which screening test is right for you.

Q: My eyes constantly feel watery, and I find myself wiping tears away frequently. What might be causing this?

A: Ironically, one of the most common causes of excess tearing is actually dry eye. When eyes are too dry, the body responds by overproducing tears. Dry eye usually occurs in people who are otherwise healthy, and it becomes more common with age. Culprits include hormonal changes, dry environments (including from fans and air conditioning), sun exposure, and allergies, such as mold or pollen or to products, such as soaps and face creams. Lubricating eye drops, such as preservative-free artificial tears may help. You can also apply a warm, wet washcloth to closed eyes for about five minutes. Chronic sinus problems, allergies, or infections can also trigger excess tears. Treating these conditions may help with watery eyes. Tearing is rarely an emergency but you should seek help right away if you have severe pain, bleeding, or change in vision. Otherwise, if the problem persists, see your eye doctor. It will be helpful for your doctor to know when the tearing started, whether it affects one or both eyes, types of medications you’re taking, and what, if anything, stops the tearing.

—Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Wanagat, MD, PhD

The post Ask the Doctor: Chronic Stress & Memory; Mammograms; Watery Eyes appeared first on University Health News.

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