Stress hormone contributes to mental decline, scientists claim

People who are constantly exposed to stressful situations are more likely to show signs of mental decline in later life, the results of a new study suggest.

According to researchers from the University of Iowa, long-term and repeated exposure to cortisol, a natural coping hormone that rises when a person experiences stress, can cause synapses to shrink or even disappear.

Synapses are essentially the parts of the brain that allow it to process and collect information.

This, in turn, can damage the person's short-term memory as they get older, with the negative changes usually taking effect after the age of 65. Anxiety proneness can be increased too, reports.

The findings, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, also suggest that prolonged cortisol exposure can increase a person's chances of experiencing physical problems such as high blood pressure and weight gain.

Jason Radley, a psychology professor who worked on the study, was quoted by as saying: "Stress hormones are one mechanism that we believe leads to weathering of the brain."

He went on to compare the process to rocks on a shoreline breaking down slowly after years of gradual impact.

While the university's scientists said the findings suggest a possible need for people with naturally high levels of cortisol to be treated, they did warn that hormones are just one of many things which influence a person's mental condition over time.