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Stress In The Aging Population

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

April is National Stress Awareness Month. The word stress brings many negative connotations and concerns, but if it wasn't for stress, our survival would be limited. The same things that cause us to jump in fear at a movie create a survival reaction of adrenaline. The adrenaline burst is what enables us to use our fight or flight instincts in lifesaving decisions. It is when the body stays in a heightened state of stress that the life-saving adrenaline pump becomes bad for the body.

No race, age, gender, or demographic is immune to stress and its impact whether positive or negative. As a premier facility that offers long-term living and care for the elderly, we at Blakey Hall want to talk about stress in the elderly.

an older man experienceing stress in aging

The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that aged adults are better equipped to deal with stress than those adults in their 20s-30s despite the age-related physical and mental changes that contribute to age-related stress. The results support an enigma where aging is connected with better mental health among older adults in the face of the loss of physical and cognitive functions. While there is no definitive scientific explanation as to why seniors are better able to cope, researchers in the study believe this is contributed to the wisdom that comes with age.

“An important explanation for improved mental health in later life is an increase in wisdom with aging, as suggested by several (but not all) studies,” they wrote. “Researchers have reported that, compared to younger adults, older individuals tend to be more skilled at emotional regulation and complex social decision making, and to exhibit more positively balanced information processing.”

Just because older adults tend to better manage stress, it does not mean they are immune to stress. In many ways, it becomes more difficult for seniors to overcome the effects of stress on their bodies and mental health. According to Dr. Michelle Dosset in the Harvard Health Newsletter, this is due in part to the physical changes we go through in our 50s and beyond. For example, as senior ages, their heart fitness and lung capacity may deteriorate over time, making their body's natural response to stress physically more difficult to manage. When stress causes their brain to release hormones that increase their breathing and heartbeat, their body may not be able to handle it as well as it used to.

There are some common stressors among the elders that are associated with advancing age:

major life transitions, physical challenges, and emotional challenges

Major life transition stressors can include:

  • Retirement

  • Financial concerns about the future as well as concerns for healthcare costs.

  • Caretaking demands for a spouse, parent or other loved one

  • Moving to a new residence

Physical changes and challenges such as:

  • Recurring pain or discomfort

  • Mobility issues with Increased dependence on others.

  • Coronary artery disease

  • Deteriorating health due to chronic conditions.

  • Losing energy that forces them to slow down their lives.

Emotional upsets that can trigger stress:

  • Losing the ability to do their favorite things.

  • Loneliness and Isolation due to spousal loss or the loss of a beloved pet.

  • Lack of Purpose due to retirement or a loss of position in church or community groups

  • Older adults who lack feeling a sense of purpose are more susceptible to stress and its harmful

  • Loss of Independence due to no longer being able to drive, living alone, decreased mobility, inability to manage finances,

Signs Of Stress In Aging Adults

Stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Here are a few of the most common ways to determine whether a loved one's stress is cause for concern:

  • Changes in eating habits; not eating or overeating.

  • Mood swings are accompanied by increased irritability, sadness, or depression.

  • Memory problems, such as forgetting names and places.

  • An apparent lack of concentration or ability to focus on small tasks.

  • Poor decision-making, such as excessive spending when they are already on a tight budget.

  • Body aches and pains, as well as increased episodes of illness,

  • Sleeping patterns shifts: Sleeping too much or not getting enough sleep

  • Self-isolation and refusal to participate in previously enjoyed activities

The signs and effects of stress on the elderly can often overlap and present in a similar manner. Below of some of the more common effects of stress on seniors.

1. Stomach Discomfort

When seniors are stressed, they may experience increased levels of inflammation, which can have a direct impact on the delicate linings of the stomach and intestines. Stress can cause seniors to have constant heartburn, constipation, or diarrhea.

2. Cardiovascular Disease

Because chronic stress can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels, seniors who are stressed are more vulnerable to problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

3. Dementia

Certain types of dementia, such as vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease, are more likely to occur in people who are under a lot of stress. This is because all of the heart problems associated with stress can damage the brain or prevent neurons from getting the nutrients and oxygen they require.

4. Obesity

Chronic stress alters how the body metabolizes carbohydrates, fat, and protein, as well as encouraging the body to store more fat around the gut and midsection.

5. Diabetes

Stress raises glucose levels because the body is attempting to generate energy in case it has to confront an attacker or flee a dangerous situation. Stress also causes problems indirectly because many people deal with stress by eating comfort foods high in sugar or fat.

6. Depression

Aging adults are already at a higher risk of depression than the general population, and putting them under a lot of stress exacerbates the problem.

How can stress be lessened in seniors?

Family and caregivers of seniors can help to detect stress triggers early and work to assist the seniors in taking steps to alleviate the effects of the stress in their life. Many of the same suggestions for coping with stress in other populations are relevant and can be applied to the senior population; although there may be some minimal tweaks in the approach.

meditating seniors managing their stress in aging

5 Tips For Managing Stress

First and foremost encourage your aging loved one to focus on the things they can control as opposed to those they can’t.

Tangible Tasks To Help With Stress In Seniors:

Physical activities such as yoga, walking, water aerobics, stretching, and other physical exercises designed for seniors are great tension relievers. A general goal of 30 minutes of activity 5 days a week is the recommendation but should be adjusted to the individual's abilities.

Eating a well-balanced diet can support a healthy immune system and the repair of damaged cells and in turn, provides the extra energy needed to cope with stressful events. Early research suggests that certain foods like polyunsaturated fats including omega-3 fats and vegetables may help to regulate cortisol levels.

Having a healthy sleep habit is a major stress-reducing tactic. Seniors should be getting eight hours of sleep daily. Without enough sleep, the ability to cope with stressors is reduced. Small inconveniences can become major stress-causing triggers. Small annoyances can seem like major setbacks when you’re exhausted.

Journaling for a senior is a safe way to release worries. It allows them to better analyze feelings and triggers, and spot a solution. For some journaling in detail can be more difficult due to various reasons. Journals don't needn’t be too long. They can be short and bulleted and still have the same results.

For seniors with limitations that impair their ability to actively exercise there are other activities to lessen stress. Social clubs or card groups are a way to connect, socialize, and not focus on things that are stressful.

Relaxation techniques and mediation can help seniors cope with stress. Meditation is a powerful stress-reliever that works to clear the mind of worries. It's a practiced skill that anyone can utilize to alleviate stress.

Interaction with a pet has been shown in studies to reduce anxiety and increase levels of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes feelings of love and well-being

Even a few minutes of cuddling with a pet can help you relax. For seniors without a pet, there are programs that provide therapy pets.

In addition to the things seniors can do for themselves, there are often outside resources that can help alleviate stress. Local agencies, religious organizations, and respite care organizations are available to assist with tasks (household chores, yard work, grocery shopping) that can be overwhelming to a senior and the root of some stress.

Encourage your loved ones to seek help from a counselor or doctor if they are under a lot of stress. One of the most common reasons that seniors seek counseling is stress management. The counselor will identify the sources of stress during therapy and collaborate to find effective stress-reduction strategies. Talking about stressful situations can sometimes make a person feel better. If your loved one still has reservations, remind them that counseling is private and confidential, making it especially valuable if they don't feel comfortable discussing their stress with friends or family. A therapist is an objective third party whose job it is to help people learn about stressful triggers and develop healthy coping strategies.

Stress management for seniors can include a variety of approaches. Remember that everyone has different coping skills that work best for them, so your senior may need to try a few stress management activities before they find what works best for them. What matters most is that you are compassionate and patient with them as they navigate the stressor in their life, whether they choose to meditate, exercise, go to counseling, or try any other stress-management strategies.

The fact that stress is a part of life does not mean that overwhelming stress is a burden seniors have to shoulder all alone. At Blakey Hall, the staff works to help combat stress and its negative effects by offering many of the same doctors’ recommended suggestions to reduce stress. Blakey Hall helps our residents to minimize the stresses they may feel through various activities, engagement, and social opportunities. We care about our residents and want them to continue to live a happy and healthy life at our facility. Reach out today to schedule a tour and learn more about how we work to mitigate the stress your loved ones may face.


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