How Your Body's Cortisol Changes with Age

Responding to difficult stimuli, such as daily stress, is why your body’s release of cortisol is front and center. Cortisol is a natural steroid hormone. It is released from the adrenal glands when the brain tells the body it will need an immediate response to outside stress. When you are young, your response is quick and manageable given the body’s youthful resilience. As you age, cortisol can create memory loss and weight gain, as well as some beneficial factors, too.

Memory

It is no surprise that the older you get the more your memory can suffer. Some of this is due to a deteriorating body unable to handle signals the way it used to, and some is due to a long life of stress. Stanford University researchers found that over time continued release of cortisol, due to stress, affects the hippocampus. The hippocampus is part of the limbic system which is found in the brain and is associated with memory and learning. When cortisol is released, this area suffers diminished glucose energy which is diverted to the muscles instead. As you age, this cycle of stress related cortisol release eventually compromises the creation of new memories. 

Studies have found that as you age your brain loses approximately 20 to 25 percent of its hippocampus cells. Because of this it cannot give proper feedback to shut off cortisol production. In turn, this causes continual damage to the hippocampus, continued cortisol release and more potential memory loss. This is known as “degenerative cascade.” According to neurologists at the Mayo Clinic, in many older people between the ages of 60 and 85, the hippocampus shrinks due to degenerative cascade, which can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Weight Gain

Physical activity such as running or lifting weights signals your body to replenish itself with carbohydrates and fat. A similar thing happens when you experience stress. Your body reacts as if it is needed to be used for exercise. Your heart rate and blood flow increase, as does your adrenal gland secretion. The adrenals will release cortisol as if it were working out. In turn, you will usually crave carbs and fats after a stressful experience. When you are young your body can handle a high calorie intake due to its fast metabolism. However, when you age, your metabolism slows down, making it harder to burn off certain foods. Because of this, as you age, you will more often than not be prone to gain weight.

Attributes of Cortisol as You Age

Cortisol helps the body in many ways. The trick is to limit as much stress as possible. Some attributes of cortisol release that can enhance age related ailments are:

  • Blood Sugar – Cortisol will keep your blood sugar levels in check.
  • Heart Maintenance – By maintaining good blood flow, cortisol will keep your heart strong.
  • Blood Pressure – Age can really affect your blood pressure. By keeping the heart jolted when dealing with a fight or flight response, cortisol will make sure your blood pressure does not get out of sync.
  • Fat and Protein Breakdown – Age is often associated with a sluggish digestive system. Cortisol makes sure that these chemicals are broken down so as not to impede a stress related response.
  • Immune System – With age can come a compromised immune system. When stress is dealt with, the immune system gets a booster shot from cortisol release.
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