The link between stress and memory | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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March 20, 2019

The link between stress and memory

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin

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We’ve heard it before. Too much stress can have an impact on our health. Now there is scientific evidence that long-term stress can cause memory and thinking problems.

The Framington Heart Study found higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol were associated with a decrease in memory and brain volume. This was more pronounced in healthy younger to middle-aged women than men.

“We now have proven evidence that stress can cause structural changes to the brain that reduce memory and information processing skills over time,” explains Yazhini Srivathsal, MD, a psychiatrist at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale. “We also know that high levels of cortisol can cause or worsen other diseases including hypertension and diabetes, both of which can have an adverse effect on brain function.”

Here’s how it works.  When we experience stress, our bodies produce extra cortisol because of our ingrained “fight or flight” instinct. This causes the levels of cortisol in the blood and brain to rise. The cortisol levels should go down after the stressful situation is over. However,  sometimes the cortisol sticks around for a while or our stress level doesn’t go down.

With more exposure to cortisol, parts of the brain responsible for transferring information can shrink. Memory and thinking skills require this information transfer system and thus can be impacted by the brain changes.

But it’s not all bad news. There are many ways we can reduce our stress to avoid prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels.  Dr. Srivathsal gives us some suggestions to lead our lives with less stress.

“Instead of always focusing on the bad things that happen to you in a day, try to put a positive spin on them and shift your focus to good things. It sounds cliché, but it really helps,” she says. Try some of her other tips to reduce the stress in your daily life.

  • Practice mindfulness and gratefulness for the good in your life
  • Take care of yourself physically and mentally
  • Do things that make you happy including hobbies and time with family and friends
  • Move your body regularly doing exercise you enjoy
  • Eat nutritious foods that satisfy and nourish your brain and body
  • Avoid tobacco, too much alcohol and recreational drugs
  • See a professional to manage your stress if you think you need it

As always, we welcome your interest in participating in research studies that explore ways we can end Alzheimer’s before it impacts another generation.  You can find a wide range of study opportunities on our website.