A new study suggests that enduring a lot of stress in your life can actually lead to memory loss and slight brain shrinkage by age 50. Yes, you read that correctly. The research, published in the journal Neurology, implies that high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, was linked to memory impairment and brain shrinkage. Researchers suggest that these findings don’t need to be overly worried about, though, as there is plenty than you can do.
“Higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, seem to predict brain function, brain size, and performance on cognitive tests,” study author Dr. Sudha Seshadri, a neurology professor at UT Health San Antonio said.
“We found memory loss and brain shrinkage in relatively young people long before any symptoms could be seen. It’s never too early to be mindful of reducing stress.”
The study conducted research from over 2,000 middle-aged participants that were otherwise healthy. Study authors discovered that participants with higher blood cortisol levels had inferior performance on memory tests vs those with more regular levels of the hormone. These same stressed out participants also showed brain shrinkage and were more noticeable among female participants.
The study took place over the course of eight years, and while follow-ups were not conducted to see whether any of the participants developed dementia, researchers suggest that the long-term effects of cortisol on the brain could predict cognitive decline in later years.
“We have previously shown that changes of this magnitude do predict levels of mental dementia, even vascular brain injury, two or three decades later,” said Dr. Seshadri.
While this information may seem rather daunting, it’s important to note that some element of stress is completely normal. When your body is dealing with a legitimate threat, cortisol is a key function to staying safe, or what can be referred to as a normal stress reaction. Once the threat has subsided, however, cortisol levels should drop again as your body regains homeostasis. If and when this doesn’t happen and cortisol levels remain above average, this is what can lead to problematic health concerns.
An example of normal stress vs unhealthy stress is preparing for a presentation.
Imagine you’re in a group presentation and others in your group have already began their parts. In your head, you’re flipping through your slides and rehearsing what you’re going to say. You’re feeling good, you know you got this. Epinephrine shoots into your system; followed by a lesser amount of norepinephrine. Your hands begin to get warm, your heart rate increases, and your eyes light up. Cortisol inches upwards. This is challenge stress, and with the right amount you’re actually better off.
Conversely, consider a different scenario where you’re so worried about the presentation you can’t sleep the night before. The lack of sleep leaves your amygdala on high alert. Moments before the presentation makes its way to your part, you’re still mentally flipping those Powerpoint slides, but the images are all distorted. Norepinephrine has edged out epinephrine, causing more constriction than dilation of your blood vessels. While your heart rate increases, less blood is pushed to the brain and body. Cortisol is shooting through the roof. Your hands go cold and your mind goes blank. This is “threat” stress. Your presentation may be compromised.
While threat stress can occur for all of us, it’s important to recognize ways to counteract excessive stress to avoid long term harm.
Things such as regular exercise, getting the right amount of sleep, and healthy eating can all greatly enhance your stress endurance. Also, having the right mindset can help you tackle the stressors in your life. Approaching stressful situations as challenges that can make you stronger, or inconveniences that will pass, will enable you to better handle whatever comes your way. It’s also shown that by staying socially engaged and supported and pursing your dreams and things you love to do, you can help keep your mind stimulated and get the requisite emotional support you need.
It’s important to recognize that stress is normal – it happens. The less you ‘stress’ about your stress, the less likelihood that the stress will adversely compromise your long term health.