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Stress Hormone Linked To Brain Shrinkage And Poorer Memory: Study

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Researchers of a new study have found that stress could lead to impaired memory and lower brain volume. The results of the study emphasize the importance of reducing stress.

Poorer Memory And Lower Brain Volume

In a new study, a team of researchers identified over 2,000 people, with an average age of 49, from the government-sponsored Framingham Heart Study, all of whom have no dementia.

At the beginning of the study, all 2,231 participants went through a series of psychological exams, as well as tests for thinking and memory skills and were again tested after eight years. At the end of the study, they also provided blood samples and had MRI scans.

Researchers found that those with higher cortisol levels, a known stress hormone, had lower scores on memory and thinking tests compared to those with normal cortisol levels. Furthermore, they also associated higher cortisol levels with lower total brain volume.

According to the researchers, the memory loss and brain shrinkage were observed in relatively younger to middle-aged adults long before symptoms can be seen, with the associations seen more among women than men.

Stress Hormones

Cortisol is a key stress hormone in the human body that is typically associated with the “fight or flight” response. The adrenal glands produce more cortisol when on high alert, and return to normal once the danger or crisis has passed. This is the body’s way of survival by shutting down the systems that may interfere with survival while on high alert and bringing them back to normal after.

However, the problem begins when the body’s stress response is prolonged and could lead to problems such as depression, trouble sleeping, weight gain, headaches, anxiety, and memory and concentration problems.

According to experts, the brain is particularly sensitive to such changes because of the amounts of nutrients and oxygen that it needs to function properly. Evidently, when the body distributes more resources to dealing with stress, fewer resources are going into the brain.

Reduce Stress

The researchers are not saying that stress causes brain damage, but they simply revealed the associations between brain functions and stress. More studies are needed to fully understand the relationship between cortisol and brain function, but researchers suggest making lifestyle modifications to reduce stress.

“It's important for people to find ways to reduce stress,” said Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, the lead author of the study, noting that this may be done in various methods such as exercise and relaxation techniques.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.

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