Burnout Signs: Memory Problems
Cortisol is our most powerful stress hormone and the fuel that marshals our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response. Burnout, says Juster, is related to low cortisol levels. When a person is overtaxed, their body can’t keep pace with the relentless demand for the hormone; in response, it dramatically reduces production.
That’s bad news for our brains, which require cortisol to form memories. “Think of Bambi running into a bear in the forest,” says Juster. “The deer must mobilize a stress response to flee but also needs its memory system to recall where the bear is in the forest.”
Our hippocampus is the region of the brain that stores our memories, and when individuals are chronically stressed, that area shrinks in size. “When hippocampal volume decrease, our ability to properly encode memories is impaired,” says Juster. One 1998 study out of McGill found that among older adults who showed elevated levels of cortisol, hippocampal volume was decreased by 14 per cent. While scientists don’t yet have concrete evidence about the impacts of low cortisol on hippocampal volume, Juster cautions that too little of the hormone can be just as bad as too much.
Most encouragingly, exercise may help reclaim hippocampal volume. In 2011, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh followed older adults who performed thrice-weekly, moderate-intensity aerobic activity. After a year, the group experienced mean hippocampal growth of two per cent—equivalent to a one- to two year reversal of the typical volume loss in seniors—which could benefit both mood and memory.