Stress Awareness Month: Seniors in Focus
Since 1992, April has been designated Stress Awareness Month: a time for health professionals to educate the public about the causes, effects, and prevention of stress. If you're familiar with other campaigns that raise awareness of life-threatening conditions like heart disease and cancer, you might be thinking stress seems a little out of place. Aren't most of us all too aware of stress in our daily lives? Is it really that much of a health threat, especially among retired seniors?
Our familiarity with stress can cause us to take its dangers too lightly. The truth is that stress doesn't just affect the mind and emotions: it physically impacts our bodies. When we experience stress, our brains release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that raise our heart rate and blood pressure, increase blood sugar levels, heighten reflexes, and activate other changes designed to protect us in the case of a real emergency. To commandeer more of the body's resources, these hormones also suppress other functions like the digestive and immune systems. Occasional stress reactions don't harm us, but the chronic stress of modern life wears on all the body's systems and leaves us more vulnerable to sickness and disease. Many studies in the last decade have linked stress to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, cancer, diabetes, and other serious conditions.
As if this weren't enough, the negative effects of stress increase as we age. In our prime, our bodies are adept at regulating stress and even thrive under its influence, but as we get older, our brain loses its ability to regulate the release of stress hormones. When we're young, we're also more resilient to stress's physical effects, but when we enter our senior years, our immune systems become even weaker when suppressed by stress, lengthening healing processes and limiting the effectiveness of preventative vaccines. The cognitive decline that's part of aging also leaves us more susceptible to stress's effects on memory function. Recent results from the long-term Einstein Aging Study released in February show that for every five points on the perceived stress scale (PSS), participants experienced a 30% greater chance of developing memory loss. Not only does stress affect us more as we get older, research has proven stress itself causes aging!
If you've reached the golden years, you may no longer experience stress from a high-pressure career or raising a family, but as you probably know, retirement isn't all peace and tranquility. The name and sources of stress may have changed, but it's still present. Here are just a few ways seniors can experience stress:
- Lifestyle changes due to the aging process or moving out of a lifelong home
- Isolation and loneliness after the loss of family and friends
- Chronic sickness
- Financial struggles in retirement
The symptoms of stress among seniors are the same as with other age groups -- headaches, fatigue, sleeplessness, weight changes, digestive issues, changes in eating habits, irritability or mood swings, inability to concentrate, and memory lapses. Even if you don't have visible symptoms, you could still be experiencing the negative health effects of stress.
Just as there's no still cure for heart disease or cancer, it's almost impossible to remove all traces of stress from our lives. However, there are simple strategies for reducing stress factors and – most effectively – our reaction to it. The following are a few recommendations for 'curing' and preventing stress:
- Simplify your life
Too many of us over-book our schedules and bring stress on ourselves. Taking away a few activities, streamlining processes, and delegating obligations go a long way in lifting physical and emotional burdens.
- Focus on improving overall health
The less healthy we are, the more vulnerable we are to stress; the more stress we're under, the more we compromise our health. Getting adequate nutrition, sleep and exercise are especially important to building our resistance to stress.
- Practice mindfulness
Rather than distracting ourselves with other things when we feel stressed, mindfulness – an intense focus on the present – often has better results. Meditation training (one method of mindfulness) has been linked in recent studies to lower levels of stress hormones
- Breathe deeply
Deep breathing in moments of intense stress lowers the heart rate and calms both the body and mind.
- Re-train negative thought patterns
Worry, anxiety, and pessimism only exacerbate stress. If you tend to struggle with negative thoughts and emotions, purposefully retrain yourself to think positively and you'll become more resilient under stress.
- Seek social support
Feeling loved and engaged in a community of people reduces the power of stress at both the physical and emotional level. It's important for seniors, especially those living independently, to staying in contact with family and friends and maintain a healthy social life.
This April, I hope you'll take another look at the very real dangers of chronic stress and examine your own life for situations that could be increasing its effects on your physical, emotional, and mental health. Look for ways your own reactions are increasing its power, and determine to build your resilience through healthy lifestyle changes and a positive outlook.
With awareness and preventative actions, you can avoid this serious health threat and enjoy a long and healthy life.
Woolston, Christopher, M.S. "Aging and Stress." consumer.healthday.com. Limehealth, 2016. ↑
"Stress Appears to Pave the Way to Alzheimer's for Senior Citizens." seniorjournal.com. New Tech Media, 2016. ↑
Nauert, Richard. "Mindfulness Linked to Lower Stress Hormones." psychcentral.com. 2015. ↑