Stress hormone linked with poorer memory in middle age

24 October 2018

Neurology: Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study

Researchers in the US have found a link between increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and poorer memory skills in people without dementia. The findings are published today (24 October) in the scientific publication, Neurology.

Cortisol is a hormone often associated with stress but is also involved in a number of important biological processes.

In this study, scientists looked at over 2,000 healthy volunteers and measured people’s blood cortisol levels as well as measuring their memory and thinking abilities in a series of tests. A total of 2,018 people, with an average age of 48, also had an MRI brain scan to give insights into the size and make-up of their brain tissue.

The researchers found that people with higher cortisol levels also performed more poorly on memory and thinking tests. Women with higher cortisol tended to have smaller brains, but this relationship between cortisol and brain size was not seen in men. The Alzheimer’s disease risk gene, APOE4, had no effect on the association between cortisol, cognition or brain tissue.

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“This research highlights the complex relationship between cortisol, thinking skills and brain size. While the study shows an association between cortisol levels and memory and thinking skills, the researchers did not look at people with dementia or explore whether cortisol levels are linked to the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s. This research only looked at cortisol levels at one point in time and longer-term studies are needed to better understand the effect this hormone might have on the brain over time.”

“While we can all feel under pressure over the course of our lives, feelings of stress can become overwhelming and cause problems with mental health. The NHS website offers advice about how people can manage stress, but anyone who feels that they need additional support should speak to their GP or can refer themselves directly to a psychological therapies service.”