Health & Wellness

Stress May Boost Women’s Risk for Cognitive Troubles

New study results have linked chronic stress in women but not men with memory problems in later years


Photo: iStock/fizkes.


New research suggests that chronic stress in middle-age may affect women more negatively than men and lead to memory problems as women grow older.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine discovered a correlation between stressful events and memory decline after surveying 909 adults in Baltimore, MD, over 30 years. Their findings were published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in July.

At intervals over the study period, participants were asked if they had experienced a traumatic event such as a rape, assault, or natural disaster. They were also asked about other stressors such as divorce, the loss of a loved one, or a sudden job loss. Participants were later asked to complete memory tests that involved recalling lists of words. Researchers found that chronic stress affected memory negatively, while traumatic events didn’t, and they suggest that the reason is that chronic stress undermines one’s ability to cope with stress.

Prolonged stress has been shown to negatively effect the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. An excess of stress hormones in the brain has also been shown to cause brain shrinkage.

“A normal stress response causes a temporary increase in stress hormones like cortisol, and when it’s over, levels return to baseline and you recover. But with repeated stress, or with enhanced sensitivity to stress, your body mounts an increased and sustained hormone response that takes longer to recover,” Dr. Cynthia Munro, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained in a statement.

“We know if stress hormone levels increase and remain high, this isn’t good for the brain’s hippocampus—the seat of memory.”

Researchers suggested that improved treatments for stress could help ward off dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which is more common among women. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in six women over 60 will get Alzheimer’s disease. Among men the same age, only one out of 11 will develop the disease.