Age and Stress Can Lead to Short-Term Memory Loss

memory lossA new study by the University of Iowa (UI) has found that prolonged stress causes a surge in the hormone cortisol, which can result in short-term memory loss in older adults.[1]

Short-term increases in cortisol are critical for survival, as they help to promote coping and help us respond to life’s challenges by making us more alert.1 However, abnormally high or prolonged spikes in cortisol, such as that which accompanies long-term stress, can lead to negative consequences, such as digestion problems, anxiety, weight gain, and high blood pressure.1

Therefore, in this study, University of Iowa researchers linked elevated amounts of cortisol to the gradual loss of synapses in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that houses short-term memory.1 Synapses are the connections that help us process, store, and recall information.1 As we get older, repeated and long-term exposure to cortisol can cause them to shrink and disappear.1

“Stress hormones are one mechanism that we believe leads to ‘weathering’ of the brain,” said Dr. Jason Radley, assistant professor in psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the paper. “Like a rock on the shoreline, after years of wave contact, it will eventually break down and disappear.”1

Previous studies have shown cortisol to produce similar affects in other regions of the brain; however, this was the first study to examine its impact on the prefrontal cortex.1

“And although preliminary, the findings raise the possibility that short-term memory decline in aging adults may be slowed or prevented by treatments that decrease levels of cortisol in susceptible individuals,” said Radley.1

This means treating people who have naturally high levels of cortisol, such as those who are depressed or those who experience repeated and long-term stress due to traumatic life events.1

Still, researchers say it’s important to remember that stress hormones are only one of a host of factors when it comes to mental decline and memory loss as we age.

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Age + Stress = Short-Term Memory Loss. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/06/19/age-stress-short-term-memory-loss/71426.html

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