Exploring the Link Between Stress and Cognitive Function

Stress effects the normal cognitive function (RODNAE Productions/ Pexels)
Stress effects the normal cognitive function (RODNAE Productions/ Pexels)

A recent study discovered that individuals who experience increased levels of stress are more prone to a decrease in cognitive function, impacting their ability to recollect, concentrate, and acquire new knowledge.

Working memory, or our ability to hold and manipulate information in our minds for short periods of time, is one of the most significant effects of stress on cognitive function. Stress has been shown to impair working memory, making it more difficult to focus, solve problems, and complete tasks requiring mental effort.


What is Stress?

It is recognized to have negative consequences on the body, including heightening the likelihood of stroke, weakened immune system responses, and other problems. It can also encourage individuals to develop unhealthy habits such as smoking and a sedentary lifestyle.


Stress can affect cognitive function

A study published in JAMA Network Open on Tuesday, March 7, showed that participants with elevated levels of stressors were more likely to exhibit uncontrolled cardiovascular risk factors and unhealthy lifestyle choices. Even after controlling for a variety of physical risk factors, the researchers discovered that these people were 37% more likely to have a poor cognitive function.

According to Dr. Ambar Kulshreshtha, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Emory University, people who experience memory issues may become pressured due to the difficulties they face. However, new research suggests that it has a detrimental effect on declining cognition, and the link works both ways.

people who experience memory issues may become pressured due to the difficulties they face (Andrea Piacquadio/ Pexels)
people who experience memory issues may become pressured due to the difficulties they face (Andrea Piacquadio/ Pexels)

Dr. Kulshreshtha stated that it not only aggravates an individual's presence of declining cognition but also has adverse long-term consequences. The study analyzed data from a federally funded study that aimed to understand disparities in brain health, particularly among Black individuals and those residing in regions known as the "stroke belt" in the South. Over the course of a decade, thousands of participants were asked to self-assess their levels and were surveyed regularly using a standardized cognitive function assessment.

According to Dr. Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine who has studied its impact on the brain, the relationship between stressors and cognitive function is a "vicious cycle." Stressor signaling pathways are activated, hampering higher cognitive functions such as working memory in the prefrontal cortex. With chronic strain, gray matter in the prefrontal cortex is lost, particularly in areas responsible for inhibiting the response to stressors and providing insight that help is needed.


In the recent study, the link between increased stressors and decreased cognitive function was comparable for both Black and White participants. However, Black individuals reported higher overall levels of stressors, likely due to chronic tension or worry such as discrimination. The findings suggest that high perceived tension levels, regardless of race, increase the risk of cognitive decline.

Having a family history increases the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease, but it is not the only risk factor. There are roughly a dozen modifiable risk factors that have been identified, which are things that can be changed to reduce the risk of developing dementia.

It is a widespread issue, but there are tools available to aid in the management of pressure and reduction.

The pressure can have a range of negative effects on both mental and physical health (Andrew Neel/ Pexels)
The pressure can have a range of negative effects on both mental and physical health (Andrew Neel/ Pexels)

Effects of stress

It can have a range of negative effects on both mental and physical health. Here are a few typical outcomes of strain:

Mental health: It can contribute to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Sleep: It can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, leading to fatigue and exhaustion.

Digestive system: It can lead to digestive issues such as diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain.

Cardiovascular system: It can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Immune system: It can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections.

Skin: It can cause skin issues such as acne, hives, and rashes.

Reproductive system: In women, the strain can contribute to menstrual cycle irregularities and fertility issues.

It's important to find ways to manage it to avoid these negative effects. If you are experiencing strain and are finding it difficult to manage, it's a good idea to seek support from a mental health professional.


How to relieve stress

There are many ways to relieve pressure, and different techniques work better for different people. Here are some effective ways to manage and reduce it:

Exercise regularly: Regular physical activity can help reduce pressure and improve overall well-being.

Practice relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation are mindfulness techniques that can help calm the mind and reduce tension.

Get enough sleep: Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night to help the body and mind recharge and reduce worry.

Connect with others: Talking with friends or family, or joining a support group, can help reduce anxiety and improve social support.

Make time for hobbies: Engaging in enjoyable activities can help reduce tension and improve mood.

Eat a healthy diet: A well-balanced diet can help support the body during times of pressure and improve overall health.

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Edited by Babylona Bora