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New research finds people are 37% more likely to have lower cognitive function when they’re stressed. Justin Paget/Getty Images
  • A new study has found a link between stress and reduced cognitive function.
  • People were 37% more likely to have lower cognitive function when they had elevated stress.
  • The effect occurred in both Black and white individuals, but Black individuals reported more stress overall.
  • Experts say unabated stress can cause numerous effects on physical and mental health.
  • Learning to trigger the relaxation response can counteract stress.

According to a new study just published in JAMA Network Open, people with elevated stress levels may have worsened cognitive function, affecting their memory, concentration, and ability to learn.

The study authors further reported that “participants with elevated levels of stress were more likely to have uncontrolled CVD risk factors and lifestyle factors (including physical inactivity, obesity, and smoking).”

However, even after adjusting for these, the study participants were still 37% more likely to have cognitive issues.

They felt it was important to study the relationship between stress and cognition because stress has previously been shown to be a modifiable risk factor for various types of dementia, including the most common type, Alzheimer’s disease.

Their analysis was based on data collected by the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study.

This federally-funded study includes over 30,000 Black and white Americans, aged 45 and up. Participants were initially recruited between 2003 and 2007 and have been receiving follow-ups every year since, via phone, questionnaires, and at-home exams.

The primary goal of the REGARDS study is to look at differences in brain health, particularly in Black people living in the so-called “stroke belt” in certain areas of the South.

Analysis of the data for this new study revealed that both races had a similar association between elevated stress and reduced cognitive function. However, Black individuals tended to report greater stress overall.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health states that Black adults have a 50% greater risk of stroke than white adults.

Additionally, they are about two times as likely to develop dementia, per the Alzheimer’s Association.

Tonya C. Hansel, PhD, LMSW, doctorate of social work program director at Tulane University, said that stress is a “slow burn” and can have impacts on both mental and physical health.

“Signs that stress may be overwhelming one’s system can look like irritability, anxiety, avoiding things that use to bring joy, or sadness,” she said. “It can also manifest in physical ways like neck pain, upset stomach, and headaches.”

According to Hansel, if we ignore these signs, which many people often do, they can turn into more serious problems.

Adam Gonzalez, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, Vice Chair of Behavioral Health at Stony Brook Medicine, and Founding Director of the Stony Brook University Mind-Body Clinical Research Center at the Renaissance School of Medicine, further explained that when we experience a stressor — whether it’s something real in our environment or only imagined — our minds and bodies respond with what is known as “the fight-flight-freeze response.”

Under the right circumstances, this response can be helpful; however, it can also cause problems for us, like difficulty thinking and concentrating, negative thinking and worry, and physical aches and pains. It can also create negative emotions including irritability, anxiety, and fear as well as behavioral issues like overeating, difficulty sleeping, and substance use.

Gonzalez said that being stuck in a perpetual stress response “can produce wear and tear on the mind and body” creating mental health problems like anxiety, panic, and depression as well as inflammation, reduced immune function, weight gain, hypertension, and heart problems.

Gonzales said it’s important to build up your resilience, which he defined as “your mind and body’s ability to bounce back from stress.”

“There are many ways we can work on strengthening our resilience and coping adaptively with stress including engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors like physical activity/exercise, healthy eating, getting restful sleep, connecting socially with others, and spirituality,” he said.

Gonzalez further explained that, just like we experience a stress response, we also can experience a relaxation response.

“You can create or elicit this response by repeatedly bringing your attention to a focal point (e.g., your breath, a positive image, word, phrase), while remaining open to the experience,” he said.

Gonzalez also noted that meditation exercises, deep breathing, guided imagery, yoga, and prayers can produce a relaxation response.

“These practices can be helpful in the immediate management of stress and they can be helpful in strengthening your mind and body’s resilience to stress,” he said, suggesting that people should practice the relaxation response every day for about 5-20 minutes.

“The more you practice, the more prepared your mind and body will be to manage stress,” he said.

Hansel additionally pointed out that exactly what you choose to do isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you are doing something positive for yourself.

She also noted that what you are doing to manage stress may need to change over time since things that once worked for you may become less effective.

“Adaptable stress reduction can be movement or physical activity, going to sleep an hour earlier, or taking 5 minutes to just breathe,” she said.