Stress and memory loss

Chronic Stress Leads to Memory Loss as You Age

We all know too much stress is bad for our health. In addition to mental health factors, having excess stress in our lives causes our blood pressure to rise, makes it harder for us to fight off infections, and leads to short-term memory loss as we age.

The Connection Between Stress and Memory

When you get stressed, your body produces higher levels of the hormone cortisol. This hormone helps when you need to quickly react to a stressor, but having elevated levels of cortisol over time can wear down the part of your brain responsible for short-term memory.

One study at the University of Iowa found these effects begin to show around age 65. The study found rats with high levels of cortisol over an extended period time displayed memory loss. Older rats with lower levels of cortisol, however, performed much like younger rats. Synapses in the prefrontal cortex shrank and disappeared after being exposed to high levels of cortisol for a long time, leading to memory loss.

Another study published in the journal Neurology examined cortisol levels in more than 4,000 older adults. Those with the highest cortisol levels performed worse on memory tests and had lower brain volume overall.

The cause of this isn’t fully understood, but numerous studies have come to the same conclusion: Stress is bad for memory.

Ways to Reduce Cortisol

People with depression and chronic anxiety tend to have high levels of cortisol. The best way to fight off memory loss is to relax and find ways to be happier. And it’s never too early to start.

Have a laugh

One study of older adults found that watching a 20-minute funny video lowered cortisol levels and led to improved memory. Check out a funny movie or book occasionally to relieve some strain from the work week. Did you know laughter can benefit your heart, too?

Hang out with friends

Even better than just seeing a funny movie, is seeing one with friends. Surrounding yourself with happy people makes you feel happier too. Try joining new groups or reconnecting with old friends. Limit time spent on social media if you find that negative posts appear more often than positive stories.

Get active

Exercise boosts the production of hormones in our brain that make us feel happier. Continue or begin an exercise program to improve your mood. Start out with daily walking, or join a gym to enjoy the social aspect of fitness. If you have limited time or mobility, consider adding mindful meditation to your day. This is the practice of focusing on the present, and it has been shown to help lessen stress and anxiety.

No matter your age or whether you’re already beginning to feel forgetful, it’s never to early to learn to manage stress. The UPMC Healthy Lifestyle Program can help you get started.