How does stress affect the brain?

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The stress hormone affects memory

In their study, the researchers worked with participants with an average age of 49 and no diagnosis of dementia.

At baseline, the investigators asked each participant to undergo a psychological exam. They also assessed each participant’s memory and thinking abilities. For the purpose of the study, they assessed these abilities again after an average period of 8 years.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the study, all the volunteers provided blood samples. The team collected them in the morning, after an appropriate fasting period, so that the blood test results would be accurate.

Specifically, the researchers were interested in measuring the participants’ levels of blood cortisol, which is a hormone released chiefly in response to stress. After assessing cortisol levels, the investigators divided the participants into groups according to their results.

The researchers found that people with high levels of blood cortisol had much poorer memory when compared with peers with normal cortisol levels. Importantly, impaired memory was present in these individuals even before obvious symptoms of memory loss set in.

These results remained consistent even after the investigators had adjusted for relevant modifying factors, such as age, sex, smoking habit, and body mass index (BMI).

“Cortisol affects many different functions,” notes study author Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, from Harvard Medical School, “so it is important to fully investigate how high levels of the hormone may affect the brain.”

“[S]o it’s important for people to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives, or asking their doctor about their cortisol levels and taking a cortisol-reducing medication if needed.”

Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui

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