Skip to main content

The danger of stress and how caregivers can cope

June 20, 2014

Research out of the University of Iowa showed a connection between a natural stress hormone and short-term memory loss for older adults. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that an increase in the hormone cortisol can cause memory lapses for people 65 and older. The results highlight the importance of stress management and relief to ensure healthy aging for caregivers.

Procedure and results
Cortisol is a necessary hormone that helps people cope with problems in life. It causes humans to think quicker and be more alert. However, long-term stress means cortisol levels can become unusually high or remain spiked for an extended period of time. Scientists believe this causes synapses to gradually shrink and even disappear. This study specifically looked at synapses in the prefrontal cortex, where short-term memory is housed. Synapses are the connections that handle processing, storing and recalling information. Over time, stress can wear the synapses down, inhibiting short-term memory function. Cortisol has been linked to synapses damage in other areas of the brain, but this is the first study to look at the prefrontal cortex.

Researchers determined that spikes in cortisol become harmful around age 65. The theory was tested using rats in a T-shaped maze. Before the trials began, the rats' corticosterone levels were documented. Corticosterone is the rat equivalent of cortisol in humans. The rats had to remember which direction they had turned in the maze. Results showed that older rats with high levels of the hormone chose correctly just 58 percent of the time while older rats with low levels went the correct direction 80 percent of the time. Upon looking at the rats' brains, the scientists found that the rats who performed poorly had fewer and smaller synapses. However, the authors said this is only one contributing factor to cognitive decline associated with aging.

Reduce caregiver stress
Caregiving is quite a demanding job that can physically and mentally affect those caring for loved ones. Because high levels of cortisol will affect you later in life, it can be helpful to learn ways to manage and prevent strain as a caregiver, based on these health tips from

  • Don't forget to take care of your own health needs, including regular checkups and necessary doctors appointments.
  • Exercise for at least 20 minutes a day, a minimum of three days a week.
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Seek out emotional support in friends or through local caregiver groups.
  • Learn how to meditate for relaxation.
  • Ask other family members for caregiving help when you need it.
  • Consider a brief stay for your loved one in a respite care community.