Suffering stress for long periods of time can shrink the brain and even cause dementia, researchers have claimed.
Chemicals released by the body during prolonged stress are toxic to brain tissue, they found.
Types of stress linked to the condition include that suffered by those in loveless marriages, dead end jobs and post traumatic situations.
Corticosteroids help the body in ‘fight or flight’ situations — suppressing the immune system and increasing the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.
The hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the formation of memories, is particularly susceptible — which leads doctors to believe stress may lead to dementia.
The discovery initially came about from doctors treating bosses of Wall Street firms for post traumatic stress after the 9/11 attacks. Brain scans showed the executives had found that their hippocampuses had shrunk to the size of those of elderly people suffering dementia.
T Byram Karasu, professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said: ‘The sample size is too small to draw conclusions but the implication is that stress had affected the hippocampus.’
Further research by the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Centre published in the Journal of Neuroimaging also found that war veterans with post traumatic stress suffered a greater degree of brain loss.
Research last year found that mid-life stress can increase the risk of women developing Alzheimer’s. Those who reported repeated episodes of stress and anxiety in middle age were up to twice as likely to develop dementia as those who did not, a team of scientists found.