Studies suggest that stress—both short-term and chronic—play a negative role in the memory performance of older adults. Moderate amounts of stress, such as driving to an unfamiliar location to take a memory test, can produce test results similar to those of a patient with Alzheimer’s. A recent study carried out by Sophia Lupien’s team at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) of the Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, in affiliation with Université de Montréal, demonstrates that when seniors are tested under stressful circumstances, the release of stress hormones (cortisol) causes a rapid decline in memory performance. In the study, seniors took memory tests in both inconvenient locations, and familiar locations. Interestingly, when these same exams took place in familiar locations, their memory performance rivaled that of young adults.
Long-term stress can have a negative impact on memory performance, and may play a role in the development of age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s. During stressful periods, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which travels to the memory and learning centers of the brain (hippocampus) and to the amygdala (emotional gateway for memory). Exposure to high levels of glucocorticoids (the main class of stress hormones) throughout life can damage brain cells. As we age, our biological systems slow, causing cortisol levels to remain higher longer, and the effects of stress to last longer. Recent studies by Finnish researchers have found that the long-term effects of stress may be the biggest cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Those with both high blood pressure and high cortisol levels are more than three times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as older adults without those symptoms.