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High levels of stress can actually shrink your brain

Today’s always on, always on-the-go, and always plugged-in lifestyle can ramp up the body’s stress response into overdrive and make someone feel like they are constantly fighting an uphill battle.

When the body’s stress response is turned on, your body releases a cocktail of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol which speed up your heart rate and cause many other physical side-effects related to stress.

While these natural responses can be helpful in stressful situations, over time, they can negatively impact health and wellbeing.

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found that stress, indicated by high levels of cortisol, can cause declines in cognition, impair memory, and shrink brain mass.

The research was published in the journal Neurology.

“In our quest to understand cognitive aging, one of the factors attracting significant interest and concern is the increasing stress of modern life,” said Sudha Seshadri, the senior author of the study, in a UT Health news release. “In this study, higher morning cortisol levels in a large sample of people were associated with worse brain structure and cognition.”

The researchers analyzed data from 2,231 participants of the Framingham Heart Study. The average age for the participants was 48, and the researchers reviewed data on morning cortisol levels (measured after morning blood draws), cognitive functioning, and MRI scans that show brain volume.

“Cortisol affects many different functions, so it is important to fully investigate how high levels of the hormone may affect the brain,” said Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, a lead author of the study. “While other studies have examined cortisol and memory, we believe our large, community-based study is the first to explore, in middle-aged people, fasting blood cortisol levels and brain volume, as well as memory and thinking skills.”

The results showed that for middle-aged adults, high levels of cortisol correlated with cognitive declines, memory loss, and slight decreases in brain volume.

The study emphasizes the importance of stress management as stress can have many adverse impacts later on in life.

“The faster pace of life today probably means more stress, and when we are stressed, cortisol levels increase because that is our fight-or-flight response,” said Seshadri. “When we are afraid, when we are threatened in any way, our cortisol levels go up. This study adds to the prevailing wisdom that it’s never too early to be mindful of reducing stress.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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