The Jakarta Post
While stress is generally known to contribute to health problems from high blood pressure to diabetes, it may also lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage. (Shutterstock/Lightspring)
High-stress living is prominent in today’s world, more so than ever before. While stress is generally known to contribute to health problems from high blood pressure to diabetes, it may also lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage.
UT Health San Antonio reported that a research study has found how higher levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, has a negative effect on adults over 40 when taking a memory test or doing cognitive tasks.
Sudha Sesadri, M.D., professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio who is the study's senior author, said that while we already know that stressed animals may suffer cognitive decline, higher levels of cortisol in humans, particularly in the morning, are linked to worse brain structure and cognition.
Being one of the human body’s key stress hormones, cortisol is best known for the “fight or flight” instinct, CNN points out. The adrenal glands are responsible for producing more of this hormone, and it shuts down various bodily functions that might hinder survival, sometimes allowing humans to perform almost unbelievable feats.
Cortisol levels normally drop once the emergency is over and this allows the functions it had shut down in the body to start working again, meaning you return to normal. However, not letting your stress levels drop means the body experiences continued high levels of cortisol, which then does not allow normal functions to return.
This would lead to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, headaches and trouble sleeping, because the brain lacks nutrients it needs to function optimally.
“The brain is a very hungry organ. 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,” Keith Fargo, who directs scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association was quoted as saying by CNN.
Furthermore, the study also found that higher cortisol levels in the blood are also associated with a reduced brain volume.
High levels of cortisol were found to be aligned with more damage to the corona radiata (parts of the brain responsible for moving information) and the corpus callosum (the area between the two hemispheres of the brain).
The study also found that the brains of people with higher cortisol levels were found to have developed smaller cerebrums--responsible for thought, emotions, speech and muscle function. People with high levels of cortisol had 88.5 percent of the total cerebral brain volume compared to 88.7 percent in people who had normal cortisol levels.
It was also noted in the article published by CNN that the effects of high cortisol on cerebral brain volume appeared to affect women only.
Dr. Richard Isaacson, who directs the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, said that estrogen could increase cortisol.
“About 40 percent of the women in the study’s high cortisol group were on hormone replacement,” Dr. Isaac was quoted as saying.
Seshadri, however, points out that the finding shall not have an adverse impact on the use of hormone replacement, and emphasizes that the study results are more likely to show an association between cortisol levels and memory loss, instead of the hormone causes of dementia.
She suggests that more research is still needed to further investigate high cortisol levels and its effect on the brain. (acr/mut)
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