High Stress Reduces Cognitive Ability, Study Finds

2 min read

March 8, 2023 -- People who live with high stress are more apt to lose cognitive function, affecting their memory, thinking, learning and concentration, a new study says.

High stress left sufferers with a 37% higher chance of worsening cognition, even when other lifestyle factors were considered, according to the research published in JAMA Network Open.

Stress causes physical health dangers, like higher risk of stroke, and it can contribute to unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking. Researchers found it not only manifests when cognitive issues flare up (like forgetting a common word), but it can also make those issues worse.

“Stress not only worsens your current cognition, but it can actually have harmful effects in the long-term as well,” Ambar Kulshreshtha, MD, told CNN. He is an associate professor of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Emory University and co-author of the study.

Cognitive ability is a general mental capability involving reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, complex idea comprehension, and learning from experience

The study followed almost 25,000 Black and White Americans over age 45 for years. Authors wrote, “Participants were recruited from 2003 to 2007, with ongoing annual follow-up. Data were collected by telephone, self-administered questionnaires, and an in-home examination. Statistical analysis was performed from May 2021 to March 2022.”

Stress is one of about a dozen changeable factors that can contribute to a person’s dementia risk. The researchers called for testing and efforts to reduce it.

Yale psychology professor Amy Arnsten, PhD, told CNN that the relationship between stress and cognitive ability is a “vicious cycle.”

“These stress-signaling pathways get released and they rapidly impair the higher cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex that includes things like working memory,” said Arnsten, who was not involved in the new study.

“With chronic stress, you actually lose gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, in sadly the exact regions that are involved with inhibiting the stress response and those areas that give you insight that you’re needing help.”