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Stress and Older Adults

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. The quickening of your heartbeat and the heightening of your senses that you experience with normal stress is just your body preparing for a fight-or-flight response. But when stress goes on for too long it can be dangerous.

For older adults, prolonged stress can come from chronic illness, disability, or the loss of a spouse. These types of stressors are long term and can be more difficult to deal with. Stress causes your body to release stress hormones, which stimulate your brain and body. Over time, that type of stimulation can take a negative toll on an older person.

How stress affects older adults

Studies show that long-term stress can damage brain cells, leading to depression. Depression is one of the most dangerous effects of stress in older people. About 2 million Americans over age 65 suffer from depression, and in 2004, the latest statistics available, older adults accounted for 16 percent of all suicides.

Some other possible effects of stress in older people include:

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of memory and concentration

  • Inability to fight off or recover from illness

  • Increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer

Symptoms of stress may include anxiety, sadness, trouble eating and sleeping, aches and pains, and weight loss.

Coping with stress

The first step to coping with stress is learning to recognize it. If you have suffered a loss, are struggling with an illness or disability, or are having trouble dealing with a major change in your life, know that symptoms of stress are normal and not a sign of weakness.

But prolonged sadness, anxiety, loss of interest in life, and giving up activities you once enjoyed are not a normal part of getting older. They could be signs of depression. If you are struggling to deal with stress or depression, you need to ask for help from your doctor or another member of your medical team.

Here are strategies for coping with stress:

  • Take care of yourself. When dealing with stress, it's important to get plenty of sleep and maintain a healthy diet. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

  • Get regular exercise. Exercise releases hormones that help you fight off stress and depression. Exercise can improve your sense of well-being.

  • Talk about your feelings. Sharing your feelings with friends and loved ones is the best way to get these emotions out in the open, where you can start to deal with them.

  • Learn relaxation techniques. Mind-body techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can be helpful. You might also relax by listening to music, reading, or participating in low-stress activities that you enjoy, such as a walk around your neighborhood.

  • Put things in perspective. Accept that there are some things you just can't control—try to see the positive aspects of change. Solve whatever problems you can and let go of the rest. Also, don't forget the value of humor.

  • Get professional help. If you are still struggling with stress or depression, talk with your health care provider. Sometimes treatment with counseling or medication is needed to help you get back on track. Treatment is nothing to be ashamed of, and it usually does work.

These years do not have to be filled with sadness or stress. Studies show that most older adults do feel happy with their lives. Stress from the inevitable losses that come with aging are normal, but shouldn't define your life.

If you are struggling with stress, the best thing to do is recognize it and take steps to manage it. It has been said that stress accelerates the aging process. Don't let stress rob you of what can be some of the best years of your life.