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Stress May Speed Mental Decline and Dementia

A study published in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Psychiatry shows that stress may significantly speed up mental decline for mature adults that already have some mental impairment.

The study included 52 participants aged 65 to 97 who were followed for 3 years. About half of the participants had no signs of cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study and the other half had mild mental impairment.

Researchers from the University of California San Diego gave the participants repeated cognitive and stress assessments throughout the three year study period. Stress was measured based on recent life events and levels of salivary cortisol, a known stress marker.

Among the participants with some mental impairment at the beginning of the study, highly stressed individuals showed much faster mental decline over the three years than those with low stress.

On the other hand, stress did not seem to affect the mental function of participants with no impairment at the start of the study.

Previous studies have established the link between stress and memory loss over the short term, but this is one of the first studies to show that long term stress can actually damage the brain by releasing neurotoxic hormones like cortisol.

Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream have been shown to have such negative effects as impaired cognitive performance, blood sugar imbalances, higher blood pressure and lower immunity.

Stress in general has also been shown to cause many problems for your physical health, especially for people with heart disease.

If you are at particular risk of developing cardiovascular complications or dementia, changing the level of stress in your everyday life could be a life or death decision.

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