Stress damages memory, attention and cognitive function
Smaller brains, due to chronic stress, are more commonly found in women.
If feeling stress is usually a situation that is alien o you, what distinguishes you from less fortunate people may be the size of your brain.
This is the result of a scientific study that evaluated 2,200 young and middle-aged volunteers – the average was 48 years old.
According to the study, people with chronic stress tend to have a smaller brain.
The research does not explain if the relationship is a cause or an effect of constant tension, if it is one of the two things, but it does indicate that it is especially noticeable among women.
How does chronic stress affect your brain?
The human body responds to stress by producing different hormones, but the mark that scientists usually look for in the blood to detect it is that left by cortisol.
Cortisol is absolutely necessary for life because the tension it produces predisposes the body to respond quickly to a situation of alertness. But the improvement of the reaction capacity is limited to specific moments.
If the level remains high for a long time, if the stress becomes chronic, the hormonal response stops being beneficial and becomes a problem.
The study, published in the Journal Neurology, relates the highest levels of cortisol to the smallest brain volume and also to the damage in some cognitive functions.
To reach their conclusions, academics have analyzed the brains of participants in the Framingham study, which are part of the third generation of a population of Boston in which scientists study the relationship between health and lifestyle. They do it since the 1940s.
Researchers analyzed images obtained with MRI scans and did cognitive tests on subjects to assess their memory, their capacity for abstract reasoning, their visual perception, attention and executive function, a concept that gathers different skills that complement each other to reach the goals future.
Apart from the differences in brain volume, the scientists detected damage to the microstructure of the white matter in several regions of the organism’s master organ, especially in the corpus callosum, which connects the two cerebral hemispheres.
“The white matter – a tissue composed of nerve fibers that communicate the different parts of the brain – is highly correlated with the speed of processing, which in turn is strongly associated with greater cognitive ability in general,” the authors explain in the article.
“The disruption of the transfer of information due to damage in the white matter could partially explain the deficiencies in the cognitive abilities associated with higher concentrations of cortisol,” they added.
Memory stands out among the faculties that researchers have seen harmed.
It is not a novelty. The episodes of stress had already been related to a lower ability to evoke memories before, but not changes in brain volume proposed by researchers … and those are much more difficult to corroborate.
At the moment it is only a hypothesis and, although other studies seem to point in the same direction, these works are still very few.
Of course, if there was a relationship that scientists describe between cortisol, stress and brain structure, the implications would be very important: the structural changes of the brain could serve to predict the development of some type of dementia in the elderly.
Memory and attention also suffer
The principal investigator, Alicia Salvador, is one of the people studying the possible role that cortisol could play in the cognitive decline.
“It is clear that constantly having high levels of cortisol affects the nervous system, and that may have consequences on the ability to adapt later, but it has not been scientifically proven whether this may or may not cause dementia,” says Salvador.
What her team has clear, thanks to the results she obtained in the investigations that have been carried out since 2004, is that stress does influence memory.
Scientists also found that continuous levels of stress do not affect men as well as women, nor young people as older people. All in all, Salvador insists that cortisol is not the enemy.
“There is a lot of evidence that has an influence on cognition, and among the most studied functions is memory, but also aspects such as attention and decision making, which began to be studied a little later”, she explains.
What happens is that the levels that each person can handle, before noticing the negative effects, are different and the effects are different as well.
What is more important, the strength of tension is not the only important parameter when assessing the effect of cortisol on health: learning to manage stress correctly can make a difference.
Previous studies have linked stress with the deterioration of the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain that determines long-term memory.
Stress is inevitable, even desirable to activate in certain situations that require action quickly, but from the evolutionary point of view, our organism is adapted to the paleolithic lifestyle, in which those moments were punctual. Stress is now out of place, and that causes perverse consequences.
Different from earlier times in human development, urban, industrial, competitive and current unpredictability context is causing tension to become chronic, and that favors cognitive deterioration.
Stress also promotes the appearance of cardiovascular diseases and promotes counterproductive responses of the immune system that can trigger neoplasms, benign or malignant tumors.
The good news is that however inevitable, we can regulate it. There has always been disconnection, travel, friends, pleasant moments that help us reduce tension.
There is also a plethora of techniques to which we can turn, among which there are those related to mindfulness, which has been said to be done even while you brush your teeth and the resources of acceptance and commitment.
The latter involves becoming aware of the problem and the need to overcome it. It is about remembering that you are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions.