Stress and its Effects on Seniors


Aging comes with a new set of stressors. While you may have put the demands of the workplace and the strain of juggling child rearing and a job behind you, this stress may be replaced by health problems, financial worries and the struggle to keep your independence. If your spouse suffers a chronic illness, you may have taken on the role of caregiver, an emotionally and physically stressful job.

Stress accelerates the aging process

You measure your chronological age by the number of years that have passed since your birth. Perhaps a more important measure, one that truly affects quality of life, is your biological age. How young are the cells that make up your body? This can be measured by taking a look at the part of your cells called telomeres. Telomeres cap the ends of DNA strands, protecting your chromosomes from deterioration. As you age, these protective caps shorten. Eventually, they become too short to function. Your unprotected cells die. Studies are finding that stress speeds up this process.

Your immune system weakens as you age

You may have noticed, as you get older, that a cut takes more time to heal. A case of the common cold may linger longer. Your immune system becomes less effective as you age. This is why the elderly have a greater risk of contracting the flu and pneumonia, among other illnesses. It also means the body is less able to fight cancer and other diseases. This weakening of the immune system is compounded by stress.

The dangers of hidden inflammation

Tied in with your immune system is your body’s ability to regulate inflammation, the swelling and redness caused by infection or trauma.  When you suffer an injury, your immune system sends white blood cells to the damaged area to halt infection and speed up healing. Things get out of whack when your body sends a faulty SOS, and white blood cells are released but have nothing to repair. Over time, these white blood cells may start damaging your organs and attacking healthy cells. Unlike the inflammation with a swollen cut, this inflammation is hidden within your body. Stress increases inflammatory activity, contributing to the development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.  

Stress management can slow the aging process and increase lifespan

While stress can’t be eliminated, you can take steps to get it under control.

  • Keep connected — maintaining an active social life, staying in regular contact with friends and family, may be one of the best ways to cut down on stress. Seniors that report they have strong social support have better health than those who are socially isolated.
  • Stay physically active — regular walks, completing laps at the pool, playing tennis or bike riding are great ways to regulate stress. Physically fit seniors are better able to respond to stress. A 2012 study of older adults found that exercise reduced the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, released during stressful events.
  • Feel good about aging — your own perceptions about what it means to grow old affects your body. If you view your mature self negatively, you may be cutting your life short by seven or more years, according to a Yale study. Forget the stereotypes that cast seniors as physically and mentally frail. Embrace the wisdom you’ve accumulated over the years and give yourself the respect due a tribal elder. It will do wonders to ease your stress and improve your health as you live out your golden years.