By Jamie Ducharme
The new study found that middle-aged adults with the highest levels of cortisol had lower brain volume and cognitive functioning than people with lower levels of the hormone, suggesting that stress may be to blame. The hormone cortisol is involved in a range of normal bodily processes, including metabolism, immunity and memory formation. But extra cortisol is also released in response to stress, leading to higher levels overall
Though the study did not follow people to see if anyone went on to develop dementia, these effects could be a precursor to cognitive decline later in life, says study co-author Dr. Sudha Seshadri, a professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio. “We have previously shown that changes of this magnitude do predict level of mental dementia, even vascular brain injury, two or three decades later,” Seshadri says.
The study involved more than 2,200 adults participating in the Framingham Heart Study, with an average age of 48. Each person went through a psychological exam, which tested memory and thinking skills, at the beginning of the study, and again about eight years later. They also gave blood samples, which the researchers used to measure cortisol levels, and the majority had MRI scans to measure brain volume.
After analyzing the results of those assessments, and accounting for demographic and health information, the researchers found a connection between elevated cortisol levels and lower total brain volume and lower scores on memory and cognition tests — even though none of the participants in the study showed symptoms of dementia.
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