Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Trauma & Cognitive Decline

Exposure to long-term stress can be harmful to the brain.  Stress hormones, deployed to help us deal with short-term challenges, can shrink or kill the brain cells in our memory processing hippocampus when we are dealing with ongoing stress.  Stress can make our thinking and memory less effective.

Research examined the association between age at exposure to traumatic events and cognitive functioning in adulthood to determine whether the effects of trauma exposure are more pronounced if the trauma occurred in childhood or later in life.  Scientists studied the lifetime trauma exposure of 2,471 participants, ages 28-84 years, in the Midlife in the United States longitudinal study. 

Trauma exposure was defined in the study as “threatening or physically or emotionally harmful events that cause lasting adverse effects on an individual’s level of well-being or functional impairment.”  The researchers studied stressful life events considered the most potentially traumatic, including being sent away from home; parent drug or alcohol abuse; death of a parent, child, or sibling; divorce; life-threatening illness; physical or sexual assault; losing a home to fire or natural disaster; and combat experience.  They also analyzed age at exposure to the trauma.

The cognitive functions that were examined were executive function and episodic memory.  Executive function is the capacity to make decisions based on monitoring a situation and using appropriate behavior within the context of that situation.  Episodic memory is autobiographical personal experience.

Individuals who suffered from traumatic experiences showed significant decline in both executive function and episodic memory 9 years after exposure, as compared to those with no trauma exposure.  Those with the most trauma exposure demonstrated the most deterioration.  Participants with adult trauma exposure showed a larger decline in executive function than those who suffered childhood trauma.  The results suggest that trauma in adulthood may be more damaging to later cognitive function and that healing from trauma is possible over time.

We have different levels stress tolerance and sensitivity to our environment.  A study of 906 adults found that 31% were highly sensitive, 40% were medium-sensitivity, and 29% were resilient.  The ongoing pandemic is stressful for some and traumatic for others.  Either way, exposure to stress hormones is not good for the brain or for our cognitive capacity. 

Takeaway:  Because trauma has a lasting impact on adult cognitive function, consider incorporating the brain healing practices of adequate sleep, exercise, meditation, yoga, gratitude into your life, and the lives of those you love.


Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 809-810, 823-847 (2013)

Kristin S. Lynch and Margie E. Lachman, The Effects of Lifetime Trauma Exposure on Cognitive Functioning in Midlife 2, Journal of Traumatic Stress, June 9, 2020,

Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 939-43 (2019)

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