They call stress the silent killer. It creeps in and does its dirty work without the victim even knowing what’s coming. It may take years, but stress will eventually take a toll on the body.
Many people wrongly assume that seniors don’t have to deal with stress. After all, they’re retired. They don’t have to worry about raising a family, and most already have their mortgages paid off. But seniors do experience stress, and it affects them in different ways.
What Causes Stress in Seniors?
Seniors, like other adults, may experience stress for a number of reasons. In many cases, their stress is more intense and may last longer.
Some of the most common causes of stress in the elderly include:
- Loss of friends, spouses and loved ones
- Feelings of isolation due to living alone
- Physical or medical limitations
- Chronic illness
- Too much unstructured time
- Changes in relationships with children
- Financial difficulties
Seniors go through many life changes, just as young adults do when they transition into adulthood. These changes can make life more stressful and challenging.
Undoubtedly, seniors who care for their disabled or ill partners are more likely to feel stressed. One study found that seniors who were stressed from taking care of a disabled spouse were 63% more likely to die within four years than caregivers who weren’t stressed.
Research has found that spouses who provide constant care actually shorten their lives by four to eight years due to the effects of stress on immune system cells.
Unfortunately, as we age, it becomes more difficult for our bodies to handle the effects of stress. For this reason, stress impacts seniors in different ways.
How Does Stress Affect Seniors?
Stress can present itself in many different ways, both physically and mentally. In either case, the effects can be particularly taxing on older individuals.
Our cells age as we age. When we get older, our heart fitness and lung capacity start to decline, especially if we lead sedentary lifestyles.
For seniors with chronic health conditions, stress can make it even harder to bounce back.
The Mental Effects of Stress
The effects of mental stress are subtler, but in cases of chronic mental stress, the effects can be just as harmful.
When we feel stressed, our bodies release stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. In the short-term, the rush of stress hormones provides focus and energy. If the body never has a chance to relax and get rid of those hormones during sleep, they build up over time.
An overload of stress hormones has been linked to a number of health conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Weak immune system
Over time, it becomes more difficult for the brain to regulate the production of stress hormones. For this reason, seniors may produce larger amounts of these hormones, and the brain may not shut down the stress alarm as quickly as it did in the past.
Elderly women seem to be more impacted by stress hormones. Studies have found that women are particularly vulnerable to an overload of stress hormones as they age, and the impact of cortisol is almost three times stronger for women than men.
High cortisol levels can lead to memory issues, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. A study from the University of California at San Francisco found that extra cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for storing memories.
Other studies have found that high cortisol levels go hand-in-hand with poor memory.
Stress and Aging
They say that stress ages you, and that saying is absolutely correct. Stress makes you feel older, and it actually speeds up the aging process.
One study found that stress can add years of age to individual immune system cells. The immune cells of highly stressed women who participated in the study had aged an extra ten years.
Stress may literally add ten years to your life.
Combating Stress as You Age
Some experts have proclaimed that stress management is the fountain of youth. Seniors can combat stress in many different ways.
Positivity is the Key
Maintaining a positive outlook can go a long way in combating stress and its effects. One study by Yale University found that people who maintained high self-esteem as they aged were able to live seven and a half years longer than those who maintained a negative outlook on life.
Experts believe a positive attitude makes it easier to deal with stress. These individuals may also have a stronger will to live.
Stay Close to Friends and Family
Another way to combat stress is to stay close to friends and family. Social support can help keep stress at bay and prevent stress-related diseases.
Studies have found that social support can help reduce the flow of stress hormones in seniors and increase their longevity. Other studies have found that social interactions can help the elderly stay mentally sharp and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Exercise is important throughout all stages of life, but it becomes even more important as we age. Cardiovascular exercise is a natural stress-reliever and can even block the effects of aging on cortisol levels. One study found that physically fit women in their 60s were able to maintain the same stress response as unfit women in their 20s. Women who were unfit in their 60s released greater amounts of stress hormones.
Relax and De-Stress
Breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi, meditation and other relaxation techniques can help shut off the stress alarm in the brain. Taking time to focus on de-stressing and relaxation can help seniors fight the effects of stress as they age. These techniques have also had positive effects on your sleep. If you are stressed and snore, this can be seriously detrimental to your health. Click here to read more.
Allie has worked in care facilities for the last 15 years providing mobility and health care to seniors of all skill levels. She is passionate about senior advocacy and is and loves to spend her free time in the outdoors.