The stresses of everyday life may start taking a toll on the brain in relatively early middle age, new research shows. The study of more than 2,000 people, most of them in their 40s, found those with the highest levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol performed worse on tests of memory, organization, visual perception and attention.
Higher cortisol levels, measured in subjects’ blood, were also found to be associated with physical changes in the brain that are often seen as precursors to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, according to the study published Wednesday in Neurology.
The link between high cortisol levels and low performance was particularly strong for women, the study found. But it remains unclear whether women in midlife are under more stress than men or simply more likely to have their stress manifested in higher cortisol levels, says lead researcher Sudha Seshadri. A professor of neurology, she splits her time between Boston University and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where she is the founding director of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s & Neurodegenerative Diseases.