Oh Good ― Here's How Cortisol Levels Affect Your Dementia Risk

The stress hormones affect more than just your mood.
Kinga Krzeminska via Getty Images

You may already know that early signs of dementia can show up when you brush your teeth, cook your dinner, or even eat your meals.

You likely already also know that drinking too much alcohol, a poor diet, and physical inactivity are all associated with a higher risk of the condition.

But ironically, it’s some potentially stressful news for my fellow anxious Annies ― it turns out that cortisol, a hormone your body releases when under stress, is linked to developing dementia.


A 2017 study looked at the cortisol levels in the urine samples of 1,865 participants who did not have dementia at the start of the research.

They then looked at the development of dementia among participants and linked it to their cortisol levels.

They found that “Elevated cortisol may affect age-related cognitive and brain changes and possibly facilitate the development of AD.”

Alzheimer’s Society says on their site, “There are many reasons why stress could be linked to dementia.

“Stress affects the immune system, which is known to play an important role in the development of dementia,” they explain, while “a key hormone released when you’re stressed, cortisol, has been linked to problems with memory.”

They add that high cortisol levels are also linked to depression and anxiety, both of which are factors that some suggest may increase the risk of dementia.

So... should I stress about my stress?

In a word, no.

Though there seems to be a link between cortisol and dementia, correlation is not causation.

And although some animal tests “found that stress appears to have a direct impact on some of the mechanisms underlying dementia,” animal tests only definitely tell us about animal reactions.

There are also so many complicating factors in the release of cortisol that it’s hard to separate the symptom from the cause when evaluating data.

For instance, cortisol is associated with heart conditions, which are in turn associated with dementia. It’s a difficult web to untangle when it comes to attributing fault for the condition.

“The current evidence indicates that while chronic stress may play a role in the development or progression of dementia, it does not necessarily cause dementia,” Alzheimer’s Society says.

“Hopefully, further research can begin to uncover what role stress plays in a person’s risk of developing dementia,” they add, though they warn that you should see your GP anyway if you’re very stressed, as this is a known cause of various other health conditions.