How Stress Changes The Brain, According To A New Study

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

If you have a lot of stress in your life —like, uh, most of us — it could lead to memory loss and slight brain shrinkage by age 50, a new study says. Published in the journal Neurology, research shows that, over time, high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, were linked to memory impairment and actual brain shrinkage. While stress does change the brain in some potentially serious ways, there are things you can do to counter its effects. Researchers stress (ahem) that you don't need to stress out about these findings, though — there's plenty you can do.

"Higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, seem to predict brain function, brain size, and performance on cognitive tests,” study author Dr. Sudha Seshadri, a neurology professor at UT Health San Antonio told CNN. “We found memory loss and brain shrinkage in relatively young people long before any symptoms could be seen. It’s never too early to be mindful of reducing stress.”

For this study, over 2,000 otherwise healthy, middle-aged volunteers participated in the research. Study authors found that participants’ with higher blood cortisol levels didn’t perform as well on memory tests compared to those with normal levels of the hormone. Stressed out participants also showed slight brain shrinkage, and these effects were also more pronounced among women participants. CNN notes that the data was adjusted to age, gender, and whether or not participants smoked.

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TIME reports that, over the course of the eight-year study, MRI scans were used to assess brain volume, while each study subject underwent a psychological exam testing their memory and thinking skills. Blood tests were also used to track cortisol levels. TIME further notes that, while researchers did not follow up to see if study participants later developed dementia, it’s possible that the long-term effects of cortisol on the brain could predict cognitive decline in later years.

“We have previously shown that changes of this magnitude do predict levels of mental dementia, even vascular brain injury, two or three decades later,” Dr. Seshadri told TIME.

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While this information can be a lot to process, it’s important to note that some stress is a totally natural part of life. During the body’s normal stress reaction, cortisol is central to the fight or flight response, according to LiveScience. If you need to deal with a legitimate threat, cortisol’s function during a stressful event is key to staying safe. Once the threat passes, however, cortisol levels should drop again as your body regains homeostasis. When this doesn’t happen and cortisol levels stay high, then health problems can happen in the long-term.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to counteract the potential harm that chronic stress can cause. According to Verywell Mind, self-care strategies can make a big difference in how resilient you are against stress. Regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and eating well can all majorly up your stress endurance. Also, by mentally framing the stressors in your life as challenges that can make you stronger, or inconveniences that will pass, you’ll be better able to better handle whatever comes your way. Moreover, by staying socially engaged and supported, and pursing things you love to do, you can help keep your mind sharp, while getting the emotional support you need to navigate life’s curveballs. Stress happens, so, take some deep breaths, take care of yourself, and try not to stress about your stress.