When your body senses danger, your brain sends signals directing your muscles to tighten and your adrenal glands to release stress hormones. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, force your breath to quicken, blood pressure to rise, and senses to sharpen. These physiological changes speed up your reaction time, increase your strength, improve your stamina, and enhance your focus. This reaction is referred to as the stress response, and it’s entirely normal and necessary for survival. Once your brain accepts you are not in danger, your body returns to its normal pre-stressed state. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is harmful to your health and can be particularly hazardous for older adults. Here is what you need to know about stress in older adults.
The Effects of Stress On Older Adults
Although it’s difficult to determine the extent to which chronic stress affects the health of older adults, there is undoubtedly a correlation. Here are the few ways seniors are affected by stress.
Lowered Immune System
You’ve likely experienced a time in your life where you were stressed out and became sick. Your situation only became more stressful when you had to put everything you were stressed about on hold to allow yourself to recover. What you may not realize is that “being stressed” is likely the reason you got sick. Stress is known to suppress the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness.
Furthermore, older adults are already more susceptible to illness due to the age-related suppression of their immune system. Combined, these factors make it easier for older adults to get sick and make the recovery process take longer. As a result, stress makes it far more difficult for older adults to detect and fight disease.
Stress can flood your body with adrenaline, which raises your blood pressure and heart rate. But the relationship between stress and heart disease extends far beyond quantifiable factors. Stress can cause seniors to look for relief in activities such as excessive drinking, overeating, and drug use. Each of these activities can damage arteries, blood vessels, and increase your risk for heart disease.
Vision and Hearing Loss
Long-term adrenaline production can constrict blood vessels, leading to a temporary decrease in hearing and vision.
Stress can literally make you feel sick to your stomach. This sick feeling occurs when stress activates the “fight or flight” response in your central nervous system. The central nervous system can shut down blood flow, causing contractions of your digestive muscles, and a decrease in the secretions necessary for digestion. Chronic or severe stress can lead to serious digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers.
It is common for dental issues to increase with age, making seniors more susceptible to fractures and cavities. Stress can contribute to these dental problems when they stressfully clench their jaw throughout the day and unintentionally grind their teeth.
Common Stressors For Older Adults
Stressors often change as you age. Here are some of the most common stressors experienced by older adults.
Changes in Health or Physical Ability
Health can be a huge stressor for aging adults.
- Deteriorating health.
- Increased dependence on others.
- Healthcare costs.
- Losing energy. Losing energy can be frustrating for seniors, as they are forced to slow down their lives.
- Losing the ability to do their favorite things.
Loneliness and Isolation
Loneliness and isolation are two very common stressors for aging adults. Here are a few examples of why seniors are particularly susceptible to loneliness and isolation.
- Losing a spouse. The loss of a spouse due to death or divorce is common among older adults.
- Losing family members, friends, or pets. Many seniors feel lonely after they lose a family member, friend, or pet. Regardless of whether the loss was the result of a death, relocation, or conflict, the event can cause seniors to isolate themselves, increasing their feelings of loneliness.
Lack of Purpose
Older adults who lack feeling a sense of purpose are more susceptible to stress and its harmful effects. Here are a few scenarios where a senior may feel a question their sense of purpose.
- Retiring. Adults who define themselves by their by their career often lose their sense of purpose when they retire.
- Losing the feeling of being needed.
- Losing a position in your community.
Loss of Independence
Losing independence can trigger a stress response. Here are a few reasons why a senior may feel their independence is threatened.
- Losing the ability to drive safely. Many seniors experience a decrease in their mobility, causing them to lose their driver’s license.
- Losing the ability to live alone. Seniors with disabilities often lose their ability to live alone, forcing them to become dependent.
- Losing control over daily routine. A decrease in mobility can force seniors to depend on others for help with the activities of daily living.
- Lacking transportation services. Seniors with limited options for transportation can make it difficult for seniors to do things on their own.
- Decreasing financial independence. Losing the ability to manage their own money can challenge a seniors sense of independence.
- Increasing healthcare costs. An increase in healthcare costs can force seniors to become financially dependent.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Stress in Older Adults
- Feeling tired
- Unnecessary worrying
- Headaches and other pains
- Negative feelings or attitude
- Feeling out of control
- Poor concentration
- Frequent crying
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Shortness of breath
If you or a loved one experience any of these symptoms, it is important to be proactive about finding ways to manage your stress before the damage becomes irreversible.
5 Tips For Managing Stress
Here are a few stress reduction techniques.
- Take care of yourself by exercising regularly and eating a well-balanced diet.
- Get involved in community events.
- Volunteer for a cause you care about.
- Learn strategies to help you cope with stress such as relaxation techniques and mediation.
- Focus on the things you can control as opposed to those you can’t.