Shrewd Living

Last Updated: 06/16/2014 19:25 PST

This Stress Hormone Could Make You Dumber?

As we age, these two factors seem unavoidable: Memory loss and stress. Yet new research from the University of Iowa says that stress could actually make memory loss worse by raising levels of cortisol–a stress hormone previously linked to higher abdominal body fat.

Now published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers say there’s now a clear link between the two health problems.

“Stress hormones are one mechanism that we believe leads to weathering of the brain,” says Jason Radley, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Iowa and co-author of the study. “Like a rock on the shoreline, after years and years it will eventually break down and disappear. ”

Cortisol, a stress hormone, rises as we become more stressed out–something that, when it happens infrequently, is actually good for the body. But when stress levels don’t stop rising, cortisol becomes chronically elevated, causing negative, long-term consequences in the body. Typically, this includes weight gain, high blood pressure, and digestive problems–but researchers now say that memory loss is also another part of the equation.

Along with researcher Rachel Anderson, also from the University of Iowa, they tested this out by using four month old rats–in human years, this equates to 20 years old. They also added elderly rats with a human age of around 65 years old, examining both of their cortisol levels. Some rats had normal cortisol levels, whereas others had elevated levels.

Researchers then placed the rats in a maze to test their short term memory, seeing how well they performed under stress. Though older rats consistently performed worse due to the natural aging of the brain, they also found that elderly rats with high cortisol levels performed the worst–and acted more stressed out.

“The findings raise the possibility that short-memory decline in aging adults may be slowed or prevented by treatments that decrease levels of cortisol in susceptible individuals,” says Radley. “That could mean treating people who have naturally high levels of cortisol–such as those who are depressed–or those who experience repeated, long-term stress due to traumatic life events like the death of a loved one.”

Cortisol doesn’t necessarily have to be treated with drugs though, point out other experts.

“Feeling socially connected, safe, and self-reliant reduces cortisol,” says Christopher Bergland, a contributor to Psychology Today. ” Ironically, our own biology–which was designed to insure our survival as hunters and gatherers–is sabotaging our bodies and minds in a sedentary digital age.”

In turn, Bergland recommends finding ways to de-stress–such as exercising regularly, learning meditate, or even listening to soothing music. While these steps may seem insignificant, they can have a profound impact on stress–and lower cortisol levels naturally.

And that means you’ll have a healthier brain too.


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