Stress might lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage, study says

Establishing our career, keeping our social relationships, and staying healthy is not easy to juggle, especially when we are living in a fast-paced world. Thus, it is no wonder why in a survey conducted in the year 2017, around 8.3 million American adults admitted that they suffer from daily stress.

Stress has become a part of our everyday lives, that people are no longer surprised when they feel burnt-out due to stress.

But did you know that according to science, stress does not only put you under emotional strain? Living a high-stress life might lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage before reaching the age of 50!

According to a research published in the Journal Neurology, the stress hormone known as cortisol plays a big role in our brain function and size.

“Higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, seem to predict brain function, brain size and performance on cognitive tests,” Dr. Sudha Seshadri, a professor of Neurology at UT Health San Antonio said.

Cortisol is one of the body’s key stress hormones. This specific kind of stress hormone is responsible for activating our ‘flight or fight’ instinct. Thus, whenever we get stressed our body tends to be on high alert since our adrenal glands are producing more cortisol.

Once produced, the cortisol will proceed to shut down  ‘unnecessary’ body functions such as reproduction and the immune system. This way, our body will be able to focus on responding to the situation that is stressing us.

The way cortisol affects our body is designed to last for a very short period of time. Once the troubling situation passed, our cortisol level should drop. 

Unfortunately, having a stress-free day seems to be nothing but a far-fetched dream. Thus, when someone suffers from chronic stress, a train loaded with health problems is expected to come on our way due to the high level of cortisol present in their body.

Since the production of cortisol signals our body to temporarily close our immune system, over-exposure to stress affects the production of the T-cell. Hence, it is not surprising to see overly-stressed people always suffering from diseases.

Cortisols also have a negative impact on our bones and muscles. Since cortisol stops the flow of amino acids into the muscle cells, it makes bone formation and calcium absorption completely impossible.

Meaning to say, if we are stressed every day or for a long period of time, our body becomes vulnerable to viruses and diseases.

In addition, our bones and muscles weaken as well. But the problem brought by the high level of cortisol in our body does not stop there. To top it all, chronic stress also makes one vulnerable to memory loss and brain shrinkage.

“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.” Dr. Seshadri shared their alarming findings.

According to the director of the scientific and outreach programs for the Alzheimer’s Association, non-stop reproduction of cortisol in our body negatively affects our brain functions and development because it needs all of the nutrients in our body to be highly functional.

“The brain is a very hungry organ,” Keith Fargo explained.  “It requires an outsized amount of nutrients and oxygen to keep it healthy and functioning properly. So, when the body needs those resources to deal with stress, there’s less to go around to the brain.”

In the research led by Dr. Seshadri, over 2,000 people with no signs or symptoms of dementia were given different psychological tests to measure their thinking skills. In addition, these people with an average age of 48 also agreed to have an MRI brain scan of their entire brain.

All of the people who participated in Dr. Seshadri’s research were a part of the Framingham Heart Study which is sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. 8 years after their initial testing, the participants were reevaluated again.

Their blood serum cortisol was measured before they take their breakfast, and their brain MRIs were redone, and their memory and cognitive tests were re-taken as well.

After adjusting the data to consider the participant’s age, sex, body mass, and vice habits, the long-term research discovered that people with the highest levels of cortisol in their body also had the most memory loss.

“I wasn’t surprised by the changes in cognition,” Fargo explained how the result is expected for people with high-level of cortisol. “If you have higher cortisol you’re probably stressed out and likely to have more difficulty on cognitive tasks.”

What is alarming is how people experience memory loss and brain shrinkage at such an early age.

“I was surprised you would be able to see such a large change in brain structure with high cortisol levels compared to moderate levels of cortisol,” Fargo, further explained. 

“If you’re seeing structural brain changes in midlife, you can imagine what is happening by the time you get old enough to develop dementia.”

Surprisingly, the negative effects of cortisol on our body appear mostly to women than to men. This is due to the estrogen present in women’s body which increases cortisol.

“Estrogen can increase cortisol,” Dr. Richard Isaacson who directs the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine “and about 40% of the women in the study’s high cortisol group were on hormone replacement.” 

However, Dr. Seshadri, would like to clarify that their research still needs more time in order to further examine the relationship between high cortisol levels and dementia. As of now, what they can advise is for people to find an efficient way to relieve stress and to exercise as well.

“We know, for example, that people who exercise throughout life have a lower risk of developing dementia,” Dr. Seshadri advised. “Take some time for yourself. Do some meditation. There are ways to control stress that will lead to a beneficial outcome.”

Money, work, and relationships are important but we should never forget to prioritize our health as well. There is a reason why ‘personal-time-offs’ are offered and integrated in the workplace- use them!

[Note: This article is for informational purposes only and not to be treated as a professional opinion or diagnosis. If you’re dealing with any of these signs & symptoms or know someone who does, it’s important to always consult with your doctor or a specialist.]

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