6 Effects of Stress on Older Adults

6 Effects of Stress on Older Adults

Stress is a part of our lives no matter how we try to avoid it, and it can be affecting your health in a variety of ways. The most common stress symptoms include headaches, fatigue, sleeping issues (such as insomnia), or muscle tension, but there are some surprising things that stress can do to your body, especially as we age.

Stress management for older adults has to start with an understanding of the relationship between stress and aging, and the surprising effect it can have on our physical and emotional well being. We’re not just talking about stress causing wrinkles, although most of us would prefer to avoid that if given the choice. Stress can cause biological changes that can impact our ability to fully function as we get older.

Stress is our body’s response to demanding or adverse conditions or events, whether they are real or perceived, but it can cause some unexpected changes to our physical and mental health. The effects of stress on older adults remind us how important stress management for seniors can be.

Life can be stressful, but seniors are even more vulnerable to health problems caused by chronic stress. Let’s take about six reasons we need stress management for seniors:

1. A Lowered Immune System

Have you noticed after an unusually stressful week that you feel run-down and start feeling a bit under the weather? Stress suppresses the immune system, making it easy for you to contract a cold or virus. As we age, it is easier to get sick and it takes longer to recover. Our bodies also have a harder time detecting and fighting infection when we get older, and simple infections can lead to more serious illness.

2. Heart Problems

Stress can flood the body with adrenaline, raising your blood pressure and heart rate. The relationship between stress and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, extends beyond these quantifiable factors. Stress can cause people to look for relief through unhealthy lifestyle habits, like over-eating, smoking, and excessive drinking, which can all contribute to damaged arteries and blood vessels.

3. Vision and Hearing Loss

Temporary vision and hearing loss can occur in cases of extreme stress. Caused by long-term adrenaline production, blood vessels can constrict and decrease hearing and vision.

4. Digestive Issues

When you are feeling stressed out, the last thing you need is to have stomach pain or find yourself running to the bathroom with cramps. Is it just a coincidence that anxiety and nerves can make you feel sick to your stomach? Not at all. Stress activates the flight or fight response in your central nervous system(CNR).  The CNR shuts down blood flow, causes contractions of your digestive muscles, and decreases secretions necessary for digestion. Chronic, severe stress can lead to irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers, as well.

5. Hair Loss

You’ve heard someone say “I feel like pulling my hair out” when they are irritated or angry, but stress can cause hair loss from normal activities like brushing and washing. Although hair loss caused by high stress is usually not permanent, if you notice sudden or patchy hair loss, talk to your doctor.

6. Dental Issues

Your spouse may complain about you grinding your teeth in your sleep when you aren’t even aware you are doing it, but stress can have you clenching and damaging your teeth and jaw throughout the day as well. Dental pain can have you running to the dentist’s office, but habits brought on by stress can put you at a higher risk of chipping or damaging your teeth. Teeth grinding can lead to fractures, cavities and pain.

How can we fight stress and stay healthy?

The effects of stress on older adults is obvious, but changes to our lifestyle can help fight stress and keep you healthy.

Try some of the following tips for stress relief as we age:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet
  • Stay social and involved with friends and family
  • Try yoga and meditation to train your body to stay relaxed
  • Keep up with wellness visits, vaccinations, and medically-advised screenings with your primary physician to address any concerns or issues that may arise
  • Use technology to reduce stress with online games, apps, and wearables
  • Visit specialists to address any concerns with your vision, hearing, or dental issues

Recognizing the signs of stress can be critical in understanding what causes our stress and how we can reduce it. Be aware of changes in your body and talk to your doctor if you are noticing any drastic changes in your physical or emotional well-being.