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Yes, Chronic Stress Can Impact Your Memory

Most people are aware that a little stress can be a great motivator. However, a lot of stress can often create more of an obstacle than a benefit. This is true when it comes to many things, including health-promoting behaviors, relationships, and even our memories systems. Stress also plays a role in inhibiting the way we form and retrieve memories.

Perceived memory problems are common and may be an early sign of future development of a major neurocognitive disorder such as dementia. According to a study in the Journal of Neuroscience, people who experience chronic stress due to bullying or continuous pressure in a tough job can run a higher risk of memory loss. Researchers led by Jonathan Godbout found that sustained stress erodes memory and found out that the immune system plays a key role in the cognitive impairment. Although their study was conducted using mice, they are hopeful that one day that it can lead to treatment for repeated, long-term mental battering such as that sustained by bullying victims, soldiers, and those who report to dreadful bosses. They noted that the stress they were researching is chronic stress over an extended period of time rather than situational stress such as giving a speech or meeting someone new.

In another study conducted by the Memory Unit of Sahlgrenska University Hospital, they studied biomarkers that are experiencing memory difficulties. For those in the studied group who also had deviating biomarkers in their cerebrospinal fluid (beta-amyloid, total-tau and phospho-tau), the risk of deteriorating and developing dementia was more than double. However, the majority demonstrated no signs of deterioration after four years. This was significant as there are a number of people who are seeking evaluation with their primary care doctors because of self-perceived cognitive problems but they have no objective signs of disease despite thorough investigation. The people they have been studying are usually highly educated professionals who are relatively young in this context, between the ages of 50 and 60. When tested at the hospital, their memory functions were intact. However, in their everyday environment where they are under pressure to constantly learn new things, they think things just are not working right. The correlation between self-perceived memory problems and stress proved to be strong. Seven out of ten in the group had experiences of severe stress, clinical burnout, or depression. The memory unit investigates suspicions of the early stages of dementia in those who seek help.

In another study, published in the journal of Neurology, researchers found that if you live a high-stress life you could have memory loss and brain shrinkage before you turn 50. Researchers noted that higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) seem to predict brain function, brain size, and performance on cognitive tests. After adjusting the data to consider age, sex, body mass and smoking, the researchers found that the people with the highest levels of cortisol had the most memory loss.

At the end of the day, stress can affect how memories are formed. When stressed, people have a more difficult time creating short-term memories and turning those short-term memories into long-term memories. Essentially this means that it is more difficult to learn when stressed. Stress can affect the type of memories we form as well. If we are stressed during an event, we may have more difficulty accurately remembering the details of the event later, as the stress we felt can skew our perceptions of what happened as well as our ability to recall what we perceived at the time. Stress can also lead to exhaustion, and this can lead to cognitive impairment that includes issues with attention and working memory. Unfortunately, memory impairment can still be detected three years later, even after the exhaustion has been addressed. This underscores the importance of managing stress before it gets to this point.​

No matter your age or whether you’re already beginning to feel forgetful, it’s never to early to learn to manage stress. There are several things you can do to improve your memory when stressed. One of the most important things that we can do is to practice personal self-care. This includes getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising weekly, practice mindfulness, and managing mental health. Take some time for yourself. Do some meditation.

If memory issues persist, don't wait too long to seek medical evaluation. Reach out to your medical professional provider and inform them of your symptoms.

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