Chicago Health | Homepage
How stress affects seniors and how to manage it

How stress affects seniors and how to manage it

Harvard Health Letters

We all experience a little stress from time to time. It’s not so hard to handle when we’re young. But as we age, coping with stress isn’t as easy anymore. “We tend to have less resilience to stress, and older adults often find that stress affects them differently now,” says Michelle Dossett, M.D., an internal and integrative medicine specialist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Changes in response

What’s different about coping with stress when we’re older? “Our cells are aging. Heart fitness and lung capacity decline, especially if you’re sedentary,” says Dossett. That keeps us from adequately accommodating the body’s natural stress response (see “What does stress do to your body?”).

If you have a chronic disease, which is already a burden on the body, it’s even harder to bounce back physically from the toll the stress response takes.

You may also feel a difference mentally. “Normally when we’re stressed, our brains get flooded with stress hormones, the midbrain takes over, and the front of the brain — which controls concentration, attention and decision-making — works less well. Stress hormones in the brain can also contribute to short-term memory problems that are unrelated to dementia or age-related memory loss. Restorative sleep helps to flush stress hormones from the brain. However, many older adults have sleep problems. Stress may make it more difficult to fall back asleep, and the inability to clear these stress hormones from the brain during sleep means that the cognitive effects of stress can worsen over time,” says Dossett.

Changes in triggers

When you were younger, your stressors may have been a busy day at the office or a crying child. “Stressors that tend to affect seniors are the loss of a loved one; too much unstructured time on your hands; a change in relationships with children; or a loss of physical abilities, such as vision, hearing, balance, or mobility,” says Dossett.

Symptoms of stress may include tension headaches, indigestion, heart palpitations, poor concentration, sleep difficulties, anxiety, irritability, crying, or overeating. If any of these symptoms are interfering with your quality of life, Dossett suggests that you seek help.

What you should do

If you’re feeling stressed, Dossett recommends talking about your concerns with loved ones, and getting a physical check-up. “Stress may be having a physical impact on you that you’re unaware of,” says Dossett. Treatment may include addressing an underlying condition, such as high blood pressure. Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise are also important, as is nurturing yourself by pursuing activities that bring you joy, and making time to socialize.

A big part of stress management focuses on triggering the opposite of the stress response: the relaxation response, which helps lower blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, and stress hormones. Techniques to elicit the response include yoga, tai chi, meditation, guided imagery, and deep breathing exercises. “One breathing exercise is to inhale slowly, mentally counting 1-2-3-4, and then exhale slowly, silently counting 4-3-2-1,” says Dossett. Another treatment for stress is cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps you identify negative thinking and replace it with healthy or positive thoughts. “These are great skills, but they often don’t work right away. So you may need medications, such as antidepressants, as a bridge,” says Dossett.

When the brain senses danger or a need to fight, it sounds the alarm for action: it tells the muscles to tighten and signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones — such as adrenaline and cortisol. Those hormones make you breathe faster, getting more oxygen to your muscles, and they trigger the release of sugar and fat into the blood, giving your cells more energy. To accommodate these needs, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up. These physical changes are all part of the stress response, which is helpful if you need to jump out of the way of danger. Once the brain senses safety, body function returns to normal.

This routine isn’t harmful if it occurs once in a while. But if you put your body through those paces frequently, or even constantly, you may suffer a cascade of dangerous and sometimes lasting effects such as high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, insomnia, heartburn, indigestion, and an increased risk for heart disease.

(C) 2016. PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Similar Articles

Necessary Rest

Necessary Rest

Respite care eases the burdens on caregivers By Kevin Sterne Caring for an aging parent can be physically

OCD?

OCD?

Misconceptions abound of a debilitating disorder By Lorna Collier Diana, 18, is a North Carolina high school senior

Make your diet more nutrient-dense

Make your diet more nutrient-dense

Environmental Nutrition By Matthew Kadey, M.S., R.D., Environmental Nutrition Newsletter There is only so much food you

Gluten related symptoms: Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity?

Gluten related symptoms: Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity?

The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts By Howard LeWine, M.D. Q: I seem to be very

Start treatment now to prevent spring allergy symptoms

Start treatment now to prevent spring allergy symptoms

The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts By Howard LeWine, M.D. Q: I have spring allergies. Every

Articles By Category

Family Health

In The Know

CH Lifestyle

May 2017
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
April 30, 2017 May 1, 2017 May 2, 2017 May 3, 2017 May 4, 2017 May 5, 2017 May 6, 2017
May 7, 2017 May 8, 2017 May 9, 2017 May 10, 2017 May 11, 2017 May 12, 2017 May 13, 2017
May 14, 2017 May 15, 2017 May 16, 2017 May 17, 2017 May 18, 2017 May 19, 2017 May 20, 2017
May 21, 2017 May 22, 2017 May 23, 2017 May 24, 2017 May 25, 2017 May 26, 2017 May 27, 2017
May 28, 2017 May 29, 2017 May 30, 2017 May 31, 2017 June 1, 2017 June 2, 2017 June 3, 2017

Categories

Recent Comments

Fund a Cure Night | The Griffith Family Foundation

Fund a Cure Night | The Griffith Family Foundation

Enjoy a great night of baseball at Peoples Natural

VIEW ARTICLE
Swing for the fences in the fight to Sideline Pancreatic Cancer

Swing for the fences in the fight to Sideline Pancreatic Cancer

Enjoy a great night of baseball at Peoples Natural

VIEW ARTICLE

Archives