What does stress really do to the brain? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 30.10.2018
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Mental health

What does stress really do to the brain?

Stress influences us in many ways. It disturbs our sleep, affects our mood and can make us sick. But more seriously it also seems to damage our brain, according to a new study.

We all get stressed out once in a while. But experiencing stress regularly can greatly affect our bodies and our minds. It can make us tired or irritable, cause sleepless nights, as well as a loss of appetite and libido. Stress can also increase the risk for various diseases, including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, and diabetes.

Read more: DW's Health News: weekend sleep-ins could prolong your life

Recently, a group of researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts wanted to know how stress impacts the brain. They studied more than 2,000 middle-aged adults over a period of eight years who took a psychological exam, memory assessment and a thinking skills test at the beginning of the study.

The researchers also took a blood sample to measure the cortisol levels in the blood. Cortisol is the hormone associated with stress.

Read more: DW's Health News: Even minor stress is a health risk

Their results showed that people with high levels of cortisol in their blood scored lower in the memory tests compared to those people with normal blood cortisol levels.

Furthermore, the results showed that their poor memory seemed to have been present even before the obvious symptoms of memory loss appeared.

Read more: Heart health and metabolism benefit from regular bedtime

"Our research detected memory loss and brain shrinkage in middle-aged people before symptoms started to show," explains Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, the study's author. "So it's important for people to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives or asking their doctor about their cortisol levels and taking a cortisol-reducing medication if needed."

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