People with high levels of stress are more likely to experience a decline in cognitive function, according to a new study, affecting their ability to remember, concentrate and learn new things.
Stress is known to have a physical impact on the body, increasing the risk of stroke, poor immune response and more. It can also lead people to engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking and poor physical activity.
The study, published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open, found that participants with high levels of stress were more likely to have uncontrolled cardiovascular risk factors and factors related to poor lifestyle.
But even after adjusting for many of these physical risk factors, people with high stress levels were 37% more likely to have poor cognition, the researchers found.
People struggling with memory problems can be stressed because of the challenges it entails. But the new study suggests the link also goes the other way, with feelings of stress leading to adverse effects on cognition, said Dr. Ambar Kulshreshtha, associate professor of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Emory University. and co-author of the study. .
“Stress not only worsens your current cognition, but it can also have long-term harmful effects,” he said.
The new research is based on data from a long-term, federally funded study that aimed to understand disparities in brain health, particularly among black people and those who live in areas of the South known as of “stroke belt”. Thousands of participants were asked for a stress self-assessment and interviewed with a standardized assessment of cognitive function, with regular check-ups for more than a decade.
The relationship between stress and cognitive function is a “vicious circle,” said Dr. Amy Arnsten, professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine.
“These stress signaling pathways are released and rapidly impair higher cognitive functions in the prefrontal cortex that include things like working memory,” said Arnsten, who has studied how stress affects the brain but was not involved in the new study.
“With chronic stress, you actually lose gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, unfortunately in the exact regions involved in inhibiting the stress response and in the areas that give you insight into needing help.”
In the new study, the link between high stress and lower cognitive function was similar for blacks and whites – but black participants reported higher stress levels overall.
“Black people report greater exposure to chronic stressors, such as discrimination,” the study authors wrote. “This finding suggests that high levels of perceived stress increase the risk of cognitive decline, regardless of race.”
Previous research has shown that black adults are about 50% more likely to have a stroke than white adults, and older black people are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
Stress was also found to increase steadily with age, but the study showed that the link between stress and cognitive function was relatively consistent across ages. Study participants were between the ages of 45 and 98 at the time of their last assessment.
The chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease are higher for people with a family history, but it’s not the only risk factor.
There are about a dozen factors that have been identified as modifiable risk factors, or things a person can change to reduce their risk of developing dementia.
Stress should be considered one of those factors, Kulshreshtha said, and he and his fellow researchers have called for regular stress screenings in primary care settings — as well as targeted interventions — to help minimize this risk.
“For dementia, there are hardly any treatments and they are so expensive and not readily available. So the best way to fight dementia is prevention,” Kulshreshtha said.
“Stress is everywhere. But there are tools to help us manage stress and reduce it.