The study, which was published in the journal Neurology, looked at existing data from the Framingham Heart Study that has been collected from participants and their offspring since the 1940s, reports Forbes. By looking at MRIs from middle-aged participants (the average of whom were 48 years old), Harvard researchers found a correlation between higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reduced total cerebral brain volume in the frontal and occipital lobes of the brain. And when stressed participants participate in cognitive memory tests (like repeating a story after a 20-minute break), they also performed slightly more poorly than their counterparts.
"We know in animals that stress can lead to cognitive decline. In this study, higher morning cortisol levels in a large sample of people were associated with worse brain structure and cognition." —Sudha Seshadri, MD, DM
“In our quest to understand cognitive aging, one of the factors attracting significant interest and concern is the increasing stress of modern life,” says study author Sudha Seshadri, MD, DM. “We know in animals that stress can lead to cognitive decline. In this study, higher morning cortisol levels in a large sample of people were associated with worse brain structure and cognition.”
More research still needs to be conducted to know the full effects that stress has on the brain, especially since this particular study only took participants' cortisol levels once instead of through the duration of the experiment. There's also the possibility that cognitive decline could contribute to stress, and not the other way around. Until we have all the answers though, precautions in the forms of long bubble baths, yoga flows, and other stress-busting tools, are highly, highly encouraged.
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