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March 09, 2023

Too much stress can impair memory and cognitive function; here's how to better manage it

Getting sufficient exercise and sleep can help prevent stress from becoming overwhelming. So can adopting a hobby and connecting with other people

Mental Health Stress
Stress cognitive function Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Too much stress can affect memory and other cognitive functions, and increase the risk of dementia, research has shown.

There is no way to completely escape life's stressors, but too much stress can lead to adverse health effects, including a loss of cognitive function. 

Over the years, studies have suggested that too much stress can affect working memory and other cognitive functions, and increase the risk of dementia. The latest research, published Tuesday, adds to that evidence.

The new study found people with high stress levels were more likely to experience declines in their memory capacity and abilities to concentrate and learn new things. It involved nearly 25,000 people ages 45 and older. 

People with high stress levels were 37% more likely to have poor cognition even after researches adjusted for cardiovascular risk factors and poor lifestyle factors. And the link between stress and diminished cognition was consistent across all age groups. 

The study also found that the link between stress and lower cognitive function was similar for both Black and white participants, but Black participants reported higher overall levels of stress. Previous studies have shown that Black adults also have a higher risk of stroke and dementia.

"Stress not only worsens your current cognition, but it can actually have harmful effects in the long-term as well," Dr. Ambar Kulshreshtha, an associate professor at Emory University and co-author of the study, told CNN

Chronic stress – when a person feels overwhelmed for long periods of time – also has been shown to increase the risk of anxiety, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, sleeping difficulties and weight. People with elevated stress levels are more likely to turn to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking, eating junk food and reduced physical activity.

Kulshreshtha suggested stress should be considered one of the modifiable risk factors for dementia. Other modifiable risk factors include cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, depression, smoking, hearing loss, binge drinking and insufficient exercise.

How to manage stress

To reduce overall stress levels, mental health experts advise people first to determine whether they can eliminate the biggest sources of stress in their lives. For instance, toxic relationships or workplaces should be avoided, if possible. And people who shoulder too many responsibilities at home should ask others for assistance meeting them. 

Sometimes stress is unavoidable – like the loss of a job or an illness. When stress can't be eliminated, experts recommend finding ways to manage it, so that it does not become overwhelming. Here are some tips from the Mayo Clinic, American Psychological Association and Harvard Health:

• Get physically active. Even mild to moderate activity like walking, gardening and housecleaning can refocus your mind on your body's movements.

• Eat a healthy diet that includes the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

• Avoid turning to caffeine, alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms. Try not to overeat.

• Try meditating or yoga to relax and quiet the stream of thoughts circling in your head. Progressive muscle relaxation also has been found to reduce anxiety and improve mental health.

• Laugh more and connect to others. Laughter has positive effects on your body and mind. Feeling like others are in your corner can decrease the loneliness often felt in stressful situations.

• Make time for a hobby like music, art or volunteering in the community.

• Protect your sleep. Without the recommended hours of sleep each night, health can suffer in many ways, especially the ability to concentrate.

• Spend time in nature. Multiple studies have shown that green spaces have a positive effect on mood.

• Stay organized. Having a place for everything and making lists for the things you have to accomplish can help you stay on top of your workload, even when it feels overwhelming.

• If you are still struggling with stress after trying different coping strategies, seek help from a counselor or a therapist.

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