Mental Health

Stressed Out? Your Brain Could Be Shrinking As A Result

When we experience heightened levels of stress, our body produces the stress hormone cortisol in excess. This, in turn, produces symptoms such as poor sleep quality, weight gain, reduced skin healing, high blood pressure, etc.

Researchers, in a new study, explored how excess cortisol may be tied to changes in our thinking ability as well. The paper titled "Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures" was published in the journal Neurology on Oct. 24.

The study involved more than 2,200 people — at an average age of 48 — who were all participants in the Framingham Heart Study. In addition to providing blood samples and MRI scans, they were instructed to take part in a test which measured their memory power, attention, visual perception, and more.

The tests were performed at the start of the study and once again eight years later. The findings revealed an association where the people who had the highest levels of cortisol also showed signs of smaller brain volume and performed worse on their thinking ability tests.

In other words, negative changes were observed in the brain scans as well as the tests measuring thinking ability. Furthermore, high cortisol levels were also linked to changes in the brain which are known to be precursors of Alzheimer's disease.

"An important message to myself and others is that when challenges come our way, getting frustrated is very counterproductive — not just to achieving our aims but perhaps to our capacity to be productive," says lead researcher Sudha Seshadri, a professor of neurology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Since the study was observational, this remains more of a correlation than a causation for now. But it did seem concerning to the researchers that physical changes in the brain were occurring in a group of people who were under the age of 50.

"The fact that in this range, having a higher cortisol level was associated with the changes in brain function this early in life was both alarming and an opportunity," Seshadri notes. The opportunity here is in the form of interventions to reduce the risk of dementia.

While more research is required to know whether reducing cortisol can provide this benefit, it would not hurt one's overall health and well-being to make an effort to reduce stress. 

Seshadri recommends trying out relaxing activities and sticking to whatever suits you the best. Some of her suggestions include meditation, exercise, yoga, getting adequate sleep and maintaining a robust social life.

"These are things that we know lower cortisol," she states. "We are expanding our understanding of the link between these lifestyle interventions and their effect on cognitive decline and dementia."