Why do stress and forgetfulness always seem to come hand in hand? A new study on anxious mice has found some interesting information suggesting that our bodies’ stress hormone, cortisol, may be the ultimate cause for short-term memory loss. And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse you’re wrong; researchers believe this problem only gets worse as we age.
Unfortunately, we need cortisol, so there’s no hope of completely eliminating the hormone. Without it, you most likely wouldn’t have lived long enough to be the stressed out adult you are today. When things get particularly tough, cortisol helps us to react more efficiently. However, the hormone is only meant to help us in short term emergencies, such as getting chased by a dog on your way home from work. When we are habitually stressed, the hormone stays in our systems much longer than usual. It’s this overexposure that researchers believe contributes to short-term memory loss. By conducting studies on mice, researchers were able to conclude that this short-term memory loss is most likely to set in when a person is around 65 years of age, according to a press release.
The study, which is published online in the Journal of Neuroscience, explains how cortisol is able to gradually eat away at the synapses in the prefrontal cortex of our brains. This area is responsible for short-term memory. The older we are, the longer our precious memory synapses are exposed to cortisol, and the more we lose. As a result, with age comes poor short-term memory. Prolonged exposure to this stress hormone is also associated with physical problems such as weight gain, digestive problems, and higher blood pressure, according to Mayo Clinic.
It’s not all bad news for us stressed out individuals, however. According to the corresponding author on the study, Jason Radley, the results could potentially be used for treatment of individuals particularly susceptible to high levels of cortisol, such as those living with depression. Researchers found that older mice with low stress hormone levels showed little memory loss, even displaying memory on par with their younger counterparts. Unfortunately, stress hormones are only one of many factors that led to memory loss in old age. Factors such as vitamin deficiency, thyroid problems, alcohol abuse, and dehydration can all contribute to memory loss in older age.
To avoid memory loss, advising someone to simply relax may be easier said than done. Still, regular exercise, staying social, and watching what you eat can help you make small strides toward golden years filled with golden memories.
Source: Anderson R, et al. Aging and HPA Status Predict Prefrontal Deficits. Journal of Neuroscience. 2014.