Stress in middle age linked with reduced memory and brain shrinkage

A new study has found a link between stress experienced in middle age and impaired memory, as well as loss of brain volume. This is the first study to look at the potential effects of stress on the brain of middle aged individuals, again underscoring the health issues caused by stress. The effects were found to impact both men and women.

The study was recently published in the medical journal Neurology, where researchers detail the results of MRIs and blood tests on more than 2,000 individuals. The participants had a mean age of 48.5 years and had their blood serum cortisol levels measured in the early morning.

Cortisol is popularly known as the "stress hormone," often appearing at higher levels when an individual is stressed. Over a long period of time, these heightened stress levels can lead to negative health effects, including — at least based on this study — cognitive ones.

Individuals in their 40s and 50s with high cortisol levels experienced impaired memory and lower cognitive skills compared to others around the same age who had normal cortisol levels. As well, the study links high cortisol levels with reduced brain volume, meaning stress in middle age may cause the brain to shrink.

Previous research has linked stress with cognitive impairment in animals, and the new research indicates that similar negative effects may be experienced by humans. The study highlights the need to engage in stress reduction activities, including getting proper amounts of sleep and making lifestyle changes when applicable. Meditation has been associated with a reduction in stress, as well.

SOURCE: UT Health San Antonio