If you were born today in the United States you can expect to live up to 78 years. And the longer you live, the longer you can expect to live.
Life expectancy has increased greatly from 1900 when the average newborn couldn’t expect to reach age 50. Similar numbers can be seen in most developed countries. In the 20th century, life expectancy increased more than it had in any century since the beginning of human civilization.
But extending the lifespan has also increased the burden of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis, and other conditions that tend to affect older individuals. Most of these chronic diseases, though, are associated with stress and therefore are preventable if good strategies to reduce stress are in place.
We all experience a little stress from time to time. It is not so hard to handle it when we are young. But as we age, coping with stress is not as easy. We tend to have less resilience to stress, and older adults often find that stress affects them differently.
What’s different about coping with stress when we’re older?
When our cells are aging our natural capacity to cope with stress decreases.
Beyond the now widely-recognized relationship between stress and physical illness, science suggests that stress and stress-related hormones can also damage the brain. This damage may profoundly affect how the brain ages and how our nervous system counteracts the effects of chronic diseases.
The reason stress can be so damaging for the brain is because when stress becomes chronic, the regulation of our stress response fails and we see an excessive release of stress hormones which creates a domino effect with the ultimate result of brain degeneration and accelerated aging. This is because stress hormones are toxic for the nervous system and can damage neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain critical to learning and memory.
We are all familiar with the idea of memory loss increasing with age as it happens to most of us as we get older. We forget names of who we have recently met, what we went shopping for, and where we left our keys or glasses.
A recent study that followed over 1200 senior citizens without such problems for 12 years found that those who began to exhibit mild memory loss due to stress were much more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. More concerning is the evidence that memory loss starts in individuals in their forties due to increased stress.
The damage of stress on the brain not only causes premature aging but makes the brain also less capable of recovering from chronic diseases related to aging such as stroke or dementia.
Sleep usually helps to flush stress hormones from the brain. However, many older adults have sleep problems and if they are stressed, it may be more difficult to fall back asleep. The inability to clear these stress hormones from the brain during sleep means that the effects of stress can worsen over time.
And it is not only the brain that is affected. Stress can accelerate biologic aging of the immune system as well. As a result, our defense mechanisms become less effective and can impair our ability to resist infections and other causes of inflammation.
This can have a cascade effect on age-related diseases such as atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and degenerative diseases. It can even shorten life expectancy or worsen the quality of our lives.
In addition to the effects that we can see, there are hidden effects that can damage our DNA and accelerate the aging of telomeres. These are tiny clocks that can determine how long we will live. They are little caps at the ends of our genes that provide protection for the genes to avoid the risk of losing important genetic instructions. As we grow older, these protective caps become shorter and as a result, our cells age faster.
A study on caregivers exposed to high levels of chronic stress showed that, compared to controls, they had shorter telomeres and their life expectancy was on average ten years less.
A more recent study showed that increased levels of cortisol released during chronic stress suppress the activation of an enzyme that protects the telomeres in the cells of the immune system. Since the telomeres are no longer protected, they become progressively shorter. This leads to early cell aging that could increase the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
The stressors that we are exposed to when we grow older are different.
When we are younger, our stressors are related to work or juggling the responsibilities of a family or time management, whereas seniors experience different stressors like the loss of a loved one or friends of the same age.
They might feel lonely and become depressed or they might have too much time on their hands. The relationships with their children changes as they become adult; or they may experience a sense of powerlessness for the loss of physical abilities, such as vision, hearing, balance, or mobility.
The stress that these feelings cause might have lasting effects on the body such as increasing blood pressure and the risk for heart disease, weakening the immune system, or generating anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Sometimes this kind of stress can affect the function of digestion with heartburn, indigestion, and stomach ulcers.
What can we do to strengthen our ability to weather chronic stress in our lives as we grow older?
There are some good stress management strategies to help you reduce the effects of stress and delay aging. Here are some tips:
- Eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.
- Nurture yourself by pursuing activities that bring you joy.
- Make time to socialize.
- Relax! 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, and stress hormones. In my audio training, I teach you the Relax to Restore exercise, a deep breathing technique to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response. Other ways to elicit the response include yoga, tai chi, meditation, and guided imagery.
- Neurofeedback and Biofeedback. These are more structured ways to reduce stress, using devices that can help you learn how to increase the capacity of your nervous system to regulate your stress response and improve both your physical and mental health. Neurofeedback is a technique that uses real-time feedback on brain activity to strengthen concentration and self-awareness. Biofeedback is a similar technique that provides feedback on the heart rate variability, which is a direct measure of the activation of your stress response. It lowers stress levels and improves the communication between your heart and your brain.
- Another treatment for stress reduction is cognitive behavioral therapy. Here with the help of a mental health professional, you learn to identify negative thinking and replace it with healthy or positive thoughts. In my audio training, you can try a simple technique called Tame your Brain to restructure your thoughts towards healthier behaviors.
It is all about your mindset!
When we get close to retirement age, we often create this image of how rosy it will be to be retired — we will go on long walks on the beach at sunset, we will volunteer, and we will have more time to spend with friends and family. It’s great to approach retirement in a positive state of mind but it’s also a good idea to consider your future in terms of your true needs so you can live your retirement years in a joyful way.
Dr. Helen Chen, a geriatrician at an Harvard-affiliated Center, suggests using a brilliant technique called “The Five Ms” that was first developed by a researcher of Yale University, Mary Tinetti.
- The first M is for Mind. Ask yourself, how are you going to stay intellectually active and manage your mood when you retire?
- The second M is for Move. Will you be able to move and drive by yourself and if not, do you have access to services that provide transportation to key places?
- The third M is for Mingle. Will you stay socially connected with friends or family?
- The fourth M is for Meaning. What will be your purpose as you enter life’s so-called third act? What “matters most” to you in your retirement years? Purpose and meaning contribute to one’s mental well-being. Maybe you can join a volunteering group or a book club or a writing group and write your story.
- The fifth and final M stands for Multicomplexity and it is perhaps the most difficult to manage. As we get older we may experience increased health challenges, from managing medications and procedures to keeping doctor appointments, to arranging for lab tests and routine screenings. Keep in mind what type of support you might need and ask for help when you need it.
And remember to be kind to yourself! No matter where you are on your journey you have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!
I hope this helps.
With love as always.