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More PsychNotes: Aging and Lifespan Issues

December 1, 2016       
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The Stress Hormone and Mental Abilities in Older Adults
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

older couple taking a walk
As people age, cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and reasoning often decrease but such decline isn't entirely unavoidable. Research has shown that higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, contributes to poorer cognitive functioning.

However, researcher Rosnick and colleagues (2016) showed that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) decreased cortisol levels for those already being treated with anti-depressants for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition characterized by excessive worry. Thus, they indicate that adding CBT to pharmacological treatments may improve cognitive functioning.

Such findings are especially important as anti-depressants do not improve cognitive functioning even when depressive and anxiety symptoms improve (Nebes et al., 2003). This indicates that older adults with cognitive decline who are being treated with medications should also engage in CBT.

Not only that, but the research suggests that reducing cortisol levels is a factor in improving memory, attention, and reasoning. CBT may reduce cortisol through methods such as changing thinking related to stress and the use of relaxation/mindfulness.

Nebes, R.D., Pollock, B.G., Houck, P.R., Butters, M.A., Mulsant, B.H., Zmuda, M.D. and Reynolds III, C.F. (2003). Persistence of cognitive impairment in geriatric patients following antidepressant treatment: a randomized, double-blind clinical trial with nortriptyline and paroxetine. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 37, 99 – 108.

Rosnick, C.B., Wetherell, J.L., White, K.S., Andreescu, C., Dixon, D., and Lenze, E.J. (2016). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Augmentation of SSRI Reduces Cortisol Levels in Older Adults with Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84, 345-352. DOI: 10.1037/o))40113


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