How Stress Increases Dementia Risk
Stress is linked to health problems ranging from depression and anxiety to heart disease and diabetes. We can also add dementia to that list, recent research suggests.
According to a study, elevated levels of the “stress hormone,” called cortisol, are linked to cognitive problems like memory loss starting in your mid- to late 30s. Researchers also associated elevated cortisol with physical brain changes often seen as precursors to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The link was especially strong for women.
Understanding the relationship between cortisol, stress and overall wellness may help you understand the impact stress has on your brain.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that’s involved in several vital processes, including helping the body respond to stress. The amount of cortisol in your blood varies, but it’s generally highest when you wake up and decreases throughout the day. When you’re under physical or emotional stress, your body secretes additional cortisol to help you respond appropriately.
Connection Between Stress and Brain Health
Researchers looked at the relationship between cortisol levels and performance on various brain function tests. The results: Participants with the highest cortisol levels performed worse on tests of memory, organization, visual perception and attention.
Researchers also noticed a relationship between changes in the brain that are known precursors to some types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The changes were so significant among those with the highest cortisol levels that they could be seen in an MRI scan of the brain.
Although researchers can’t definitively say that too much cortisol causes cognitive problems, these findings indicate that high stress levels during middle age could be one of the factors that increase a person’s risk of developing dementia. This means it’s possible that taking steps to reduce stress when you’re young [CL1] may help protect your brain in midlife and beyond. Here are some ways to reduce stress on a daily basis:
Exercise, which releases endorphins and improves sleep.
Reduce caffeine intake.
Write down your feelings in a journal, focusing on the positive things in your life.
Spend more time with friends and family.
Practice yoga and meditation, which both encourage mindfulness and deep breathing.
Cortisol and Overall Health
Because cortisol interacts with nearly every system in your body, too much of it can contribute to a host of health problems. Not only can elevated cortisol levels caused by stress affect your brain, they also can lower your ability to fight off illness and increase your risk of cardiovascular and digestive problems, as well as affect your mood, metabolism and more.
Too little cortisol also can cause other health problems, including dizziness, weight loss and low blood pressure. It can even lead to hyperpigmentation of the skin, meaning patches of skin may grow darker in color.
How Doctors Measure Cortisol Levels
Cortisol can be measured in blood, urine or saliva. If doctors are looking for excess cortisol production, an endocrinologist may want to measure cortisol in your urine over a 24-hour period to get an accurate measure of cortisol levels. They may also collect saliva at midnight to check cortisol levels. Cortisol levels should be lowest at midnight. If it’s not, your body may be overproducing the stress hormone.
An endocrinologist can determine which test is best for you and help you understand your results. If your cortisol level is high and it’s not because of an underlying medical condition, you and your healthcare provider can create a plan to lower your stress and ward off a host of health problems down the road.
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