My grandfather, the late William Winters, made his living as a sharecropper, moving from farm to farm throughout central Minnesota in the early part of the last century. He was, by all accounts, a pretty lousy farmer, a bit of a raconteur and the only person I’ve ever known who smoked cheap cigars by stuffing them into the bowl of his pipe.
By the time I met him in the 1950s, Grandpa was living in a tiny hovel next to a junkyard in Monticello, Minn. I soon learned that he liked a little whiskey after Sunday dinner, kept chickens and, briefly, a milking cow, in his back yard, and he was not above flirting with young women.
He was one of my first great role models.
That wasn’t because of his general disregard for social convention or his utter lack of ambition — though some of that may have rubbed off on me. What really made an impression on me was how calm he always seemed to be. How nothing seemed to get under his skin. Here was a guy who, by almost any measurement, had struggled and repeatedly failed at his life’s work and, yet, I never heard him express any regrets about his past or voice any concerns about his future.
And when he died, at the age of 93, he was in full possession of all his faculties.
Grandpa Winters came to mind recently, when I stumbled upon a new study from the University of Edinburgh that linked stress to memory loss. Researchers there showed how two receptors in the aging brain react to the stress hormone cortisol. They found that a certain level of cortisol activated one of the receptors, improving memory. But prolonged high levels of the hormone activated a second receptor that led to memory loss.
“While we know that stress hormones affect memory, this research explains how the receptors they engage with can switch good memory to poorly-functioning memory in old age,” said Dr. Joyce Yau of the Centre of Cardiovascular Science.
It’s just another reminder to pay attention to your stress levels as you move into middle age — or any other age, for that matter. (We already know how elevated levels of cortisol can cause inflammation and a whole host of serious health problems.) There are all sorts of stress management techniques out there; I’ve found meditation and exercise to be particularly effective.
I’m not entirely sure how Grandpa Winters stayed so centered. Maybe it was a lifetime of hard work or a generally positive outlook on the world. I’m really hoping it wasn’t the cigars.