Increased Stress Hormone Levels Cause Cognitive Decline Linked To Alzheimer’s Disease


Aug 23, 2019


Image Credit: Francesco Sambati/Getty Images

Whenever an individual feels stress, the body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to cope with the situation causing the discomfort. However, too much stress becomes toxic: research states that consistently elevated cortisol levels may have a negative impact on cognition and lead to higher chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous data has established that women are more stressed than men. Therefore, this new finding could be another reason why women develop Alzheimer’s more than men. Research also cites other causes of the Alzheimer’s affecting women more, like women’s comparative longevity, heart problems, and certain neuron proteins which spread more rapidly in women than men.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is caused by the degeneration and death of brain cells. Dementia is a group of symptoms that include a decline in memory and thinking skills, which can be severe enough to impede a person’s ability to perform day-to-day activities independently.

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According to the current study, published in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience, patients who had Mild Cognitive Impairment, which is the stage between expected cognitive decline of normal aging and dementia, and full-fledged dementia also had higher cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels could also be causing the rapid cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s. Other problems that elevated cortisol levels can cause include neuroticism, depression, sleep disturbances, and cardiovascular problems.

Since cortisol levels vary throughout the day, there are different readings for normal levels of cortisol throughout the day. The stress hormone’s levels are at their highest in the morning and then gradually decline to become at their lowest at night. So, a cortisol reading between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. would be around 10–20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL), and 3-10 mcg/dL at 4 pm.

“Cortisol is itself the tip of the iceberg of things that are going on in a person’s life and a person’s body,” Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist and cortisol expert at The Rockefeller University, told Scientific American. He added that while cortisol is not ‘bad’ and is necessary for life, people are more likely to behave in unhealthy ways when stressed, for example, to smoke, drink or eat unhealthy food excessively.

To combat elevated cortisol levels, a drug named Xanamem was developed to inhibit the enzyme that converts inactive cortisone into active cortisol. However, while the drug did help inhibit cortisol production, the second phase of the clinical trial for the drug did not show results that actively helped improve cognition. However, research continues, and Actinogen, the manufacturer, is hopeful that the drug will also help inhibit symptoms of mood disorders like schizophrenia alongside Alzheimer’s disease.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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