Stress and Memory Impairment in Older Adults

A toxic combination

Posted May 15, 2017

Stress is detrimental to basic thinking processes.  In adults suffering from PTSD for example—a disorder characterized by high and dysfunctional levels of stress—a region of the brain that is essential for memory can be adversely affected. 

Stress also may be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease.  In animal models, stress is associated with development of Alzheimer’s pathology in brain tissue. 

The story is similar in humans.  In a study by Katz and colleagues (2016) published in Alzheimer’s Disease and Associated Disorders, chronic stress was associated with increased risk for cognitive decline in older adults.  Participants who reported more stress had greater likelihood of developing Mild Cognitive Impairment, which often is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.  The effect of stress was independent of depressive symptoms and genetic risk for cognitive impairment. 

These results mirror earlier high quality research.

In turn, once an older adult has cognitive impairment, the ability to regulate stress may be impaired. Lin and colleagues (2016)—in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry—found greater stress reactivity in older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment as compared to older adults without cognitive impairment.  In my lab, we find that older adults with memory impairment report more sadness and negative mood after watching a film about interpersonal loss than healthy older adults. 

Thus, stress may increase risk for cognitive impairment and cognitive impairment may decrease our ability to manage stress.  These data are alarming given reports that stress and anxiety disorders are on the rise in the U.S. and that our population is aging at an unprecedented rate. 

Information as to how to reduce and manage stress—at all ages—is sorely needed. Mindfulness meditation, which decreases stress and anxiety in many populations, may be effective in older adults with cognitive impairment.  Several studies are underway that focus specifically on stress management in older adults with cognitive impairment. 

Results are eagerly awaited! 


Katz, M. J., Derby, C. A., Wang, C., Sliwinski, M. J., Ezzati, A., Zimmerman, M. E., & ... Lipton, R. B. (2016). Influence of perceived stress on incident amnestic mild cognitive impairment: Results from the Einstein Aging Study. Alzheimer Disease And Associated Disorders, 30(2), 93-98. doi:10.1097/WAD.0000000000000125

Lin, F., Ren, P., Cotton, K., Porsteinsson, A., Mapstone, M., & Heffner, K. L. (2016). Mental fatigability and heart rate variability in mild cognitive impairment. The American Journal Of Geriatric Psychiatry, 24(5), 374-378. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2015.12.012

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