Does Stress Cause Cognitive Decline?

Everybody has stress, and we have all different ways of dealing with it. Of course, some people are better at handling stress than others.  Regardless, though, a new study warns that any stress you may have could be taking a toll on your brain in a way that you might not realize.

This study looked at more than 2,000 people in early middle age (most were in their 40s) and found that those who have the highest levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) also performed worse on memory tests, organization tests, attention tests, and visual perception tests.

Measuring these cortisol levels in the subjects’ blood, the researchers also found those with the highest levels also experienced physical changes in the brain.  Perhaps most importantly, these physical changes in the brain have often been seen in the development of Alzheimer’s disease; or rather, they may be precursors to the condition or other types of dementia.

Another interesting discovery is that link between high cortisol levels and low cognitive performance seemed to exhibit the more prolifically among women.  However, even with that correlation, the study could not determine if women in midlife experience more stress than men or if their bodies respond to the same stress by manifesting higher cortisol levels, explains lead researcher Sudha Seshadri.  Seshadri is also the founding director of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s & Neurodegenerative Diseases.

Splitting her time between the University of Texas Health Science Center (San Antonio, TX) and Boston University, she stresses (no pun intended) “An important message to myself and others is that when challenges come our way, getting frustrated is very counterproductive—not just to achieving our aims but perhaps to our capacity to be productive.”

Considering all of this new data is very important to remember that cortisol does not discriminate between types of stress. Effectively, your body will produce cortisol whether you have physical stress or mental stress. Thus, Seshadri advises, you might have high levels of cortisol because you are dealing with a physical illness like diabetes or you might see a spike in the hormone because you are dealing with life changes.

The results of this study have been published in the journal Neurology.