A new study has established that stress can lead to brain shrinkage and worsening of memory in middle-aged people.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and published in the Scientific Journal Neurology, said that stress can reduce the size of the brain because of higher levels of cortisol — also known as the stress hormone.
According to the findings, people in their early 40s who suffered from dementia or weakening of memory had higher levels of cortisol in their body.
This led scientists to establish that stress and the resultant production of cortisol can be an early warning sign of dementia in middle-aged individuals.
Study author Dr. Sudha Seshadri, who is a professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio, said that the functioning of the brain, its size, and memory can all be predicted by higher levels of cortisol, per a report by CNN.
“We found memory loss and brain shrinkage in relatively young people long before any symptoms could be seen. It’s never too early to be mindful of reducing stress.”
At the beginning of the study, each participant was asked to perform a memory and thinking skills test. After a gap of eight years, the participants were asked to repeat the exercises.
According to a report by the Daily Mail, a subset of the group, comprising 2,018 people, also underwent an MRI brain scan to measure the volume of their brain.
Once the results were adjusted in accordance with age, sex, body mass index (BMI), and smoking habits, scientists discovered that people with higher levels of cortisol scored lower on memory and thinking skills test as compared to those who were less stressed. The study also found that the effect was more evident among women.
Additionally, people with higher cortisol levels also showed smaller brain volumes, with those with high cortisol levels “having brains that were 88.5 per cent of the total cranial volume,” the Daily Mail stated.
The study did not find any link between low levels of cortisol and the size of the brain.
Lead author of the study Dr. Justin Echouffo-Tcheugui added that it is important for people to find ways of reducing stress, such as engaging in moderate exercise, getting enough sleep, introducing relaxation techniques in their day-to-day lives, or speaking to their doctors about taking cortisol-reducing medication, if necessary.
“Cortisol affects many different functions so it is important to fully investigate how high levels of the hormone may affect the brain,” Dr. Echouffo-Tcheugui said, per the Daily Mail.
“It’s important for physicians to counsel all people with higher cortisol levels.”