At any age, stress is a part of life. Young and old alike have to face difficult situations and overcome obstacles. While young adults struggle to establish a career, achieve financial security, or juggle work and family demands, older people may face failing health or dwindling finances — or simply the challenges of retaining their independence. Unfortunately, the body’s natural defenses against stress gradually break down with age. But you don’t have to give in to stress just because you’re no longer young.
Many seniors still manage to sail through their later years. “Successful agers” tend to have a few things in common: They stay connected to friends and family, they exercise and keep active, and, above all, they find ways to both reduce and manage the stress in their lives.
The stress alarm
Stress comes in two basic flavors, physical and emotional — and both can be especially taxing for older people. The impacts of physical stress are clear. As people reach old age, wounds heal more slowly and colds become harder to shake. A 75-year-old heart can be slow to respond to the demands of exercise. And when an 80-year-old walks into a chilly room, it will take an extra-long time for her body temperature to adjust.
Emotional stress is more subtle, but if it’s chronic, the eventual consequences can be as harmful. At any age, stressed-out brains sound an alarm that releases potentially harmful hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Ideally, the brain turns down the alarm when stress hormones get too high.
Stress hormones provide energy and focus in the short term, but too much stress over too many years can throw a person’s system off balance. Overloads of stress hormones have been linked to many health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and weakened immune function. For older people already at heightened risk for these illnesses, managing stress is particularly important.
Over time, the brain can slowly lose its skills at regulating hormone levels. As a result, older people who feel worried or anxious tend to produce larger amounts of stress hormones, and the alarm doesn’t shut down as quickly. According to a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, women are especially susceptible to an overload of stress hormones as they age. The study found that the impact of age on cortisol levels is nearly three times stronger for women than for men.
The flow of stress hormones can be especially hard on older brains in general. According to a report from the University of California at San Francisco, extra cortisol over the years can damage the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s crucial for storing and retrieving memories. Several studies have found that high cortisol goes hand in hand with poor memory, so we might be able to chalk up certain “senior moments” to stress.
Years of emotional distress may even increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A five-year study of nearly 800 priests and nuns published in the journal Neurology highlighted this potential hazard. The subjects who reported the most stress were twice as likely as the least-stressed subjects to develop the disease.
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Speeding up the clock
Stress doesn’t just make a person feel older. In a very real sense, it can speed up aging. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that stress can add years to the age of individual immune system cells. The study focused on telomeres, caps on the end of chromosomes. Whenever a cell divides, the telomeres in that cell get a little shorter and a little more