Experiencing stress can lead to many different short-term impacts on brain function, including confused thinking, poor judgement and forgetting even the most routine tasks or familiar objects. But research has shown stress also has long-term impacts on brain function as we age, including interference with cognition, attention and memory.
Stress also is associated with inflammation, which can contribute to cardiovascular issues and impact heart health, which is why it’s important for people to find ways to reduce stress and keep blood pressure down. But studies over the past decade have shown that the impact of stress on cognitive function is just as dramatic, especially with memory function.
“It’s not uncommon to feel disorganized and forgetful when you’re under a lot of stress,” Harvard Health wrote about stress and cognition. “But over the long term, stress may actually change your brain in ways that affect your memory.”
They report it may also increase the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
The Short-Term Cognitive Impact of Stress
A recent study published in Biomedicine reviewed past research that shows psychological stress can impact cognitive function in the short-term. Almost everyone has experienced this at some point. Feeling stressed can lead to symptoms such as:
- Worrying constantly
- Racing thoughts
- Feeling disorganized
- Difficulty focusing
- Poor judgment
- Always seeing the negative side
Researchers theorize that part of the issue in the short-term is that energy gets redirected in the brain. Energy normally used to power parts of the brain used for memory and executive function gets routed instead to parts of the brain that react to stress, such as the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain.
Speaking on the issue with Harvard Health, Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said: “The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode.”
The Long-Term Cognitive Impact of Stress
While many people are aware of the short-term impacts of stress through experience, fewer know how stress can impact the brain in the long-term.
A study published in the journal Neurology that involved 2,231 men and women with an average age of 48 found that those with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol also had more incidents of memory impairment and smaller brain volumes. The association proved stronger in women than men.
In a review of research on the long-term impact of stress on cognition, a paper published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience reported that chronic stress led to decision-making deficits in mice. Other studies involving both mice and humans have associated stress with reducing spatial and sequence learning, discrimination of spatial positions and learning of associative sequences.
Overall, the research indicates that a person under stress has a brain that will build up areas designed to deal with threats while shortchanging areas of the brain needed for more complex tasks. For some, these changes can be reversed. For others, they cannot, and it can lead to severe cognitive consequences down the road.
Getting Stress Under Control
For those who feel themselves under chronic stress, there are ways to get it under control. In addition to regular exercise, restful sleep and healthy diet, these other tips can reduce stress.
- Establish healthy routines. Good routines can make the stress that comes from chaos less of a risk, and make you more resilient during times of great stress.
- Organize your life. Managing your work by creating a doable list of daily tasks rather than allowing yourself to get overwhelmed
- Accept stress. Don’t aim for a stress-free life, it’s not possible. But do aim to have better, healthier responses to stress
- Seek counseling. If you find yourself unable to get stress under control, seeking help from counseling professionals
Research shows chronic stress can impact cognitive function. But becoming proactive and taking steps to reduce stress can help you get better control of your emotions and possibly lower your risk of accelerating age-related cognitive decline.