Stress and Memory Loss: What You Need to Know

Stress is a chain reaction that manifests physically, emotionally or mentally. It can ultimately affect how you operate on a day-to-day basis, including how well your memory works. There are two different kinds of stress, both of which trigger a physiological response in the body:


  • Acute stress that comes on suddenly and only lasts for a short period of time, with a clearly defined beginning and end
  • Chronic stress that is long-term prolonged stress with no clear ending. When under chronic stress, the body is in a constant state of physiological alarm. This type of stress is more proven to have an impact on memory than acute stress


How Does Stress Impact Memory?

Cortisol is a well-known stress hormone in the body that is produced in the adrenal glands. Cortisol is released into the body during our fight-or-flight response—the body’s survival mode during a stressful or threatening situation. Think of cortisol as a fire alarm, alerting the body to react to a danger either by combatting the threat (putting the fire out) or fleeing from it.


Cortisol is vital to the function of that response, because it can trigger reactions, including:


  • Increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing
  • Redirecting blood flow to the major muscle groups and brain
  • Shutting down all non-essential bodily functions, including those that control arousal and urinary production


However, when levels of cortisol remain abnormally high or have prolonged spikes, it can have serious ramifications on the body (e.g., weight gain, poor digestion and high blood pressure). It can also affect short-term and working memory. Short-term memory is the ability to retain small bits of information for a limited amount of time. Working memory is the use and processing of information received from short-term memory. It allows the brain to juggle several concepts or pieces of information at one time and decide what action to take.


Stress can affect memory because it has the ability to cause the synapses in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to gradually degenerate over time. Let’s break that sentence down:

Synapses are the connections in the brain that allow us to process, recall and store information.

The hippocampus is a section of the brain believed to be the center for emotion and memory.

The prefrontal cortex is the front of the brain that is said to be in charge of complex cognitive behavior, expression of personality and decision-making.


So basically stress can make it difficult to process, recall and store information in parts of the brain responsible for memory, emotion, cognitive behavior, personality expression and decision-making.

In addition, it has been shown that stress can measurably shrink your brain. Excess cortisol can kill or stop the production of new neurons (nerve cells in the brain) and synapses. As a result of repeated and prolonged exposure to cortisol as we age, synapses can shrink and disappear.

Stress also lets toxins into your brain. The blood-brain barrier, the protective coating of the brain, can become weakened due to stress. This weakening may allow toxins or other harmful matter into the brain, including free radicals that can kill neurons.

This degeneration of parts of the brain due to cortisol can cause forgetfulness. It is also considered one of the major contributing causes of dementia in the elderly.

It is important to note, however, that stress is only one component to memory loss. Other factors, such as sleep deprivation, also play a role in the degeneration of memory. Your physician can give you more information on what you can do to keep your memory intact.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one is suffering from memory loss due to stress or any other condition, contact Montclair Memory Clinic today for an evaluation.