A recent study published in the journal Neurology found that living a high-stress life can cause memory loss and brain shrinkage- and all before the age of 50– thanks to the stress hormone cortisol.


Study author Dr. Sudha Seshadri, professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio and his team “chose more than 2,000 people with no signs of dementia and gave them various psychological exams to measure their thinking skills.”1 (These people were all also part of the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute 2 that’s followed the health of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts and their offspring since 1948.) The group was reevaluated after about eight years and had their blood serum cortisol measured before breakfast, brain MRIs done, and a series of memory and cognitive tests repeated.


After researchers adjusted for age, sex, body mass, and smoking, the study found that people with the highest levels of cortisol had the most memory loss. Yikes! 

Previous studies on this topic have focused on the elderly “and the memory area of the brain, called the hippocampus,”3 however, this new study looked at a group of younger men and women (with an average age of 48) and looked at the entire brain, not just the hippocampus.

  • High levels of cortisol were associated with more damage to the parts of the brain that move information throughout the brain (corona radiata) and between the two hemispheres of the brain (corpus callosum)4
  • The brains of people with higher cortisol levels had smaller cerebrums, the two hemispheres of the brain responsible for thought, emotions, speech and muscle functions5
  • The average total cerebral brain volume in people with high levels of cortisol was 88.5 of the total brain volume, compared to 88.7 in people with normal levels of cortisol6
  • Interestingly, the effects of high cortisol on cerebral brain volume appeared to only affect women, not men (Estrogen can increase cortisol and about 40% of the women in the study’s high cortisol group were on hormone replacement but the study adjusted for the use of hormone replacement therapy)7

(Cortisol is one of our key stress hormones and helps us cope during those “flight or fight” moments. If we’ve stressed “and on high alert” our adrenals produce more cortisol. As soon as the trouble has passed, cortisol levels are supposed to drop. But if you are constantly stressed, those levels stay high. You may also remember that an increase in cortisol is responsible for weight gain around the midsection. Too much is not good for us.)

Dr. Seshadri stressed that his study only shows an association and not a cause so more research will be needed. But, she also suggests that people consider “lifestyle modifications” now that will combat stress.


Basically, the takeaway is calm. And peace. Take some time for yourself. Do yoga. Breathe deeply. Relax. Take an Epsom salt bath. Control your stress levels. You and your brain will thank you.

Sources and References

  1. CNN, October 25, 2018.
  2. CNN, October 25, 2018.
  3. CNN, October 25, 2018.
  4. CNN, October 25, 2018.
  5. CNN, October 25, 2018.
  6. CNN, October 25, 2018.
  7. CNN, October 25, 2018.