Stress in midlife affects cognitive decline later in life

  • A large long-running study found that stressful life experiences (but not traumatic events) during middle-age were associated with greater memory decline in later life — but only for women.
  • A large long-running study found that middle-aged adults with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol had poorer cognition than those with average cortisol levels, and this was also associated with greater brain atrophy.
  • A study found that older adults (65-95) who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions showed greater fluctuations in cognitive performance.

Stressors in middle age linked to cognitive decline in older women

Data from some 900 older adults has linked stressful life experiences among middle-aged women, but not men, to greater memory decline in later life.

Previous research has found that the effect of age on the stress response is three times greater in women than in men.

Having a greater number of stressful life experiences over the last year in midlife in women was linked to a greater decline in recalling words later and recognizing those words. There was no association, however, to traumatic events — suggesting that ongoing stress has more of a negative effect on cognition.

The data came from 909 Baltimore residents participating in the National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, begun in 1981. Participants were an average age of 47 during their mid-life check-in in the 90s.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-08/jhm-im080219.php

https://www.futurity.org/mid-life-stress-women-memory-alzheimers-2127072-2/

Stress hormone linked to impaired memory, smaller brain in middle age

Data from 2,231 participants (mean age 48.5) in the Framingham Heart Study has found that adults in their 40s and 50s with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol had poorer cognition than those with average cortisol levels. Higher cortisol was also associated with smaller brain volumes.

There was no association between higher cortisol level and APOE genotype.

Age, sex, smoking and body mass index were taken into account in the analysis.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-10/uoth-sci102418.php

Response to daily stressors could affect brain health in older adults

A study following 111 older adults (65-95) for 2½ years, has found that those who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions and reported a more dour mood in general showed greater fluctuations in their performance on cognitive tests.

Cognitive testing occurred every six months, for six days over a two-week period.

Stressful events and emotional reactions were assessed by self-report.

Interestingly, there were age differences. For the oldest participants (late 70s and older), being more reactive to stressors than usual contributed to worse cognitive performance, but those in their late 60s to mid-70s actually did better on the test if they reported more stressors.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-11/osu-rtd111918.php

Reference: 

Munro, C. A., Wennberg, A. M., Bienko, N., Eaton, W. W., Lyketsos, C. G., & Spira, A. P. (2019). Stressful life events and cognitive decline: Sex differences in the Baltimore Epidemiologic Catchment Area Follow-Up Study. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 34(7), 1008–1017. https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.5102

[4483] Echouffo-Tcheugui, J. B., Conner S. C., Himali J. J., Maillard P., DeCarli C. S., Beiser A. S., et al.
(2018).  Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures.
Neurology. 91(21), e1961.

[4482] Stawski, R., Cerino E., Witzel D., & MacDonald S\.
(Submitted).  Daily Stress Processes as Contributors to and Targets for Promoting Cognitive Health in Later Life.
Psychosomatic Medicine. 81(1), 81 - 89.

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