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What Stress Does to the Body After 50

The older we are, the more chronic stress can damage our health. But there are ways to tame the worry


spinner image woman with hand to forehead juggling too many items of mental baggage such as schedule health caregiving money repairs and bills
Shutterstock; Getty Images; Hero Images; Stocksy/AARP

A 6-year-old feels stress on the first day of kindergarten. A 12-year-old feels stress at a soccer playoff game. And so it continues on into young adulthood, middle age and life’s further reaches. The triggers of stress may change over the years, but the phenomenon of a stressful moment — that sudden eruption of strong physiological and emotional reactions we have all felt — mostly remains the same.

The difference is how it affects us. 

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With age, our bodies react more intensely to stress; its effects on our health can become more toxic; and, once triggered, our bodies take longer to return to baseline. And while, as older adults, we may have fewer moments of acute stress — those onetime episodes of tension, confrontation or fright that are an inevitable part of modern life — we are more apt to be faced with chronic challenges like illness, financial insecurity or caregiving situations that can repeatedly trigger stressful reactions over the span of years, even decades.

But there is good news too: While age may erode our natural defenses against stress, it also endows us with powerful new weapons with which to fight back.

Why we stress less

Polls consistently show that as an older adult, you are simply better at handling stressful situations than your younger cohorts. Case in point: a little radar blip known as COVID-19. Ninety-four percent of Americans who have been killed by the disease were 50 and older. Adults 65 and older make up only 17 percent of the U.S. population but account for 76 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

Yet a 2021 University of Michigan poll, conducted in the throes of the pandemic, found that 65 percent of adults ages 50 to 80 rated their mental health as “excellent” or “very good.” And a 2020 AARP poll found that while 38 percent of those in their 40s reported being “highly stressed,” older respondents seemed to have more resiliency: Thirty-three percent of those in their 50s, 18 percent of people in their 60s and just 13 percent of adults 70 and older said they had high stress levels.

What’s going on here? Simply put, the older we are, the more adept we are at navigating away from potential stressful situations, says Susan Charles, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine.

“When, for example, we bring older and younger people into the lab,” says Charles, “and put them in an uncomfortable situation, older people are much more likely to say it’s not as stressful. Young people are much more reactive.”

Studies have shown that compared with younger adults, older adults are much more likely to credit positive emotional stimuli and discredit negative emotional stimuli. One study has shown that older adults are 50 percent more likely to use proactive coping techniques learned during their long lives in order to prevent stressful situations from developing in the first place — and are better able to reach a compromise with life’s demands. 

These skills, Charles says, stem from three assets that older people have in greater abundance than younger people: life experience, self-knowledge and time perspective.

“Older people are more likely to choose to disengage from minor problems, understanding that it’s really not worth it to get upset about the small stuff. If an older adult is talking politics with someone they don’t necessarily agree with, for example, they’re much better than younger people at changing the topic,” she adds.

In the same vein, older adults are much more likely to focus their energies on important relationships with close friends and family, and less on peripheral acquaintances. They experience fewer stressful conflicts in these close relationships, and when conflicts do arise, they tend to rate them less negatively. This may explain in part why older adults reported less COVID-related stress than younger people: Their social networks were stronger.

“Once the heart starts pumping, it takes longer for an older person’s body to relax and recover.”

Susan Charles, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine

What stress does to the body

So yes, we grownups have developed techniques for coping with acutely stressful moments — flashes of anger, approaching danger, even the onset of a pandemic. But stress remains an aggressive health foe for us, due in large part to more chronic forms of stress, and the ongoing drumbeat of health concerns, the pressures of caring for ailing relatives, and the increased anxiety around living on a “fixed” income are frequent challenges for older adults. 

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These high-level challenges have a way of pushing your “stress” button day after day, week after week, year after year. Say you are struggling financially; every time a bill arrives in the mail or you are at the grocery store, instant money fears can trigger the flow of stress chemicals. This can impact the body, especially the older body, which may be more vulnerable because of other health issues, in less detectable but far more consequential ways, Charles says. 

Stress response #1: The hormone flood 

When the hypothalamus in the brain senses stress, it signals the pituitary and adrenal glands to pump out cortisol — the “stress hormone” — into the bloodstream to help the body respond to threatening situations. Cortisol does a number of things, including increasing inflammatory compounds and clotting factors in the bloodstream, in preparation for possible injury.

Among older adults, the cortisol surge is both stronger and takes longer to return to normal. Studies show that cortisol affects older adults significantly more than younger adults, causing more inflammation. It also impacts our physical capacity, weakening muscle signaling; older adults under stress may find it harder to do something like climb stairs. When the stress becomes chronic, the brain — dense with cortisol receptors — is repeatedly washed with cortisol surges, which become toxic, increasing your risk for developing dementia.

Cortisol also can dysregulate your immune system. In one study, a month of chronic stress exposure was associated with a more than 150 percent greater risk of catching a cold. In another study of financially strained older adults, each day since their last Social Security payment (a significant source of income for nearly two-thirds of older adults) was associated with a significant increase in inflammation, a known predictor of disability and mortality.

Fight the cortisol flood: There are many ways to stem the tide, but one stands out. Studies indicate that “exercise can bring down cortisol levels in the elderly and in people with major depressive disorder,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. Turns out that wonderful feeling that follows exertion is the most healing thing you can do for stress.

Stress response #2: The fight-or-flight instinct

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The other way our brains respond to stress is by signaling the body to release adrenaline. Heart rate increases, and blood flow shifts, sending more oxygen flowing to the heart and skeletal muscles. Cellular metabolism cranks up to increase energy production, and blood pressure spikes to distribute that energy wherever it may be needed. Other blood vessels constrict, further boosting blood pressure while keeping blood and oxygen flowing to vital organs. This becomes increasingly hazardous as we get older and health issues like high blood pressure become more common.

“Often, with age, we become less physically resilient,” Charles says. “That’s why the older you are, the longer it takes for your body’s core temperature to return to normal. Or when a car flashes its brights, it takes longer for your eyes to readjust.”

The same thing happens when stress hits, Charles notes. “Once the heart starts pumping, it takes longer for an older person’s body to relax and recover.” One study tracked the blood pressure of teachers over the course of a stressful school day. The blood pressure of both young and older teachers was elevated, but at the end of the day, the BP of the younger teachers had returned to normal but the BP of the older teachers had not.

This only makes sense. As we age, our blood vessels become stiffer, while atherosclerosis often sets in, impeding blood flow. That explains why the stress response among older people is more likely to cause a stroke or heart attack: The greater the abnormalities in the vasculature, the more dangerous a sudden increase in blood pressure may be.

Ground fight or flight: Older adults have some advantages in calming the sympathetic nervous system, because acquired wisdom can help us notice stressful patterns and practice acceptance. “Reframing” a perceived threat brings it down to size. In one study, older adults who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training reduced their risk of depression by more than 50 percent.

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Exercise can help quell stress

It isn’t always the stressor itself that creates stress, but the feeling that we can’t do anything about it. This may be why physical activity has been repeatedly shown to be among the most effective ways of dealing with stress: It’s active, it’s proactive, and it gives you a sense of mastery and control.

It’s also highly effective in offsetting the health risks that stress causes. For example, one study found that financially stressed older adults had, respectively, 15 and 20 percent higher levels of different inflammatory markers. But in a roundup of 11 separate studies involving more than 1,200 people, researchers concluded that exercise could reduce many of these same inflammation markers.

Part of the power of physical activity is that, like stress, it impacts so many systems at once, says Linda P. Fried, M.D., dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.

“Physical activity makes your muscles stronger, and also lowers inflammation and also improves your blood pressure regulation. So it has these specific effects all over the body.”

Exercise can offset the stress of social isolation, the health impact of which is comparable to smoking or obesity. So, too, can volunteer work: Older adults who have a clear purpose in life diminish their risk of loneliness by 35 percent and slash the risk for stroke and depression.

David Ferenden, 76, has been taking care of his wife, Dawn, 74, who has mild Alzheimer’s disease, for three years. The care entails constant vigilance, and as the disease advances, the stress load has only increased.

“It’s a battlefield sometimes,” says Ferenden, who describes day-to-day life as “highly erratic.” To cope with the stress, he has been volunteering at the local food bank. When he’s not doing that, he’s playing horseshoes with his buddies or riding his electric bike.

Over time, he’s learned to take things as they come. Some days, he knows, will be difficult. But “instead of trying to fix it, which I can’t do, I just say ‘OK, honey, we’re going to have a bad day.’ And we laugh about it,” he says.

For Ferenden — for all of us — life will always be stressful. But there are ways to cope.

“I don’t think that every older adult really realizes the strengths that they have,” Charles says, “and that in some ways they’re doing better than younger people.”

Many of us, of course, do realize this. For we have lived longer than most. Yet the time for living is still now. Now, now, now.

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7 Ways to Tame Stress

Natural ways to tamp down the stress effect

“Stress is defined as when you perceive that a task has overwhelmed your ability to complete that task,” says Daniel Kirsch, president of the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit in Weatherford, Texas. But we can prevent that perception from triggering a full-blown stress response. 

Here are some of Kirsch’s best tips.

  1. Ask for help. If you are experiencing stress around your finances, for example, ask a professional or someone you trust to sit down with you and work out a budget. “Financial planning is not part of stress management,” Kirsch says. “But accepting that you need to do it is.”
  2. Take stress breaks. “To charge your phone, you have to plug it in,” Kirsch says. “To charge your brain, you have to unplug it.” Look for opportunities to stop multitasking. “When you sit down to eat breakfast, just concentrate on enjoying breakfast. Don’t plan the day.”
  3. Use the quieting reflex. Smile — inwardly — to signal to your body that all is well. Then take one deep breath. “Visualize hot air coming up through the bottom of your feet, through your body, and filling your lungs.” Then exhale as you follow this sequence in reverse.
  4. Walk. Movement is an easy stress releaser. “You don’t have to go outside. You don’t have to get on a treadmill,” Kirsch says. Simply standing up and walking around your living room for a few minutes can help break you out of any stress cycle you may be locked into.
  5. Seek out rabbit holes. “To stop a baby crying, you give them something new to play with,” Kirsch says. Take a moment to look up information on something completely different from what is stressing you out. Make it meaningless trivia about something that interests you.
  6. Volunteer. Taking time out to help others is a uniquely powerful stress buster, Kirsch notes, because it works for us on a number of different levels. “Volunteer work combines the satisfaction we feel when we help someone with the social interaction that helps us feel less alone.”
  7. Make your bed. This was the title of a best-selling book by Admiral William McRaven, and Kirsch says it’s great life advice for managing stress. “The first thing you should do each day is make your bed. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and control, right from the start.”​​Oliver Broudy is a National Magazine Award finalist and author of The Sensitives: The Rise of Environmental Illness and the Search for America’s Last Pure Place.
Video: 3 Surprising Benefits of Meditation
spinner image closeup of man closing eyes and looking peaceful surrounded by all of the release valves available to him such as exercise sleep and volunteering or cooking
Getty Images

7 Ways to Tame Stress

Natural ways to tamp down the stress effect

“Stress is defined as when you perceive that a task has overwhelmed your ability to complete that task,” says Daniel Kirsch, president of the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit in Weatherford, Texas. But we can prevent that perception from triggering a full-blown stress response. 

Here are some of Kirsch’s best tips.

  1. Ask for help. If you are experiencing stress around your finances, for example, ask a professional or someone you trust to sit down with you and work out a budget. “Financial planning is not part of stress management,” Kirsch says. “But accepting that you need to do it is.”
  2. Take stress breaks. “To charge your phone, you have to plug it in,” Kirsch says. “To charge your brain, you have to unplug it.” Look for opportunities to stop multitasking. “When you sit down to eat breakfast, just concentrate on enjoying breakfast. Don’t plan the day.”
  3. Use the quieting reflex. Smile — inwardly — to signal to your body that all is well. Then take one deep breath. “Visualize hot air coming up through the bottom of your feet, through your body, and filling your lungs.” Then exhale as you follow this sequence in reverse.
  4. Walk. Movement is an easy stress releaser. “You don’t have to go outside. You don’t have to get on a treadmill,” Kirsch says. Simply standing up and walking around your living room for a few minutes can help break you out of any stress cycle you may be locked into.
  5. Seek out rabbit holes. “To stop a baby crying, you give them something new to play with,” Kirsch says. Take a moment to look up information on something completely different from what is stressing you out. Make it meaningless trivia about something that interests you.
  6. Volunteer. Taking time out to help others is a uniquely powerful stress buster, Kirsch notes, because it works for us on a number of different levels. “Volunteer work combines the satisfaction we feel when we help someone with the social interaction that helps us feel less alone.”
  7. Make your bed. This was the title of a best-selling book by Admiral William McRaven, and Kirsch says it’s great life advice for managing stress. “The first thing you should do each day is make your bed. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and control, right from the start.”​​Oliver Broudy is a National Magazine Award finalist and author of The Sensitives: The Rise of Environmental Illness and the Search for America’s Last Pure Place.

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