The Impact of Stress on Older Adults and Tips for Managing It

Learn how chronic stress affects older adults and tips for managing your stress level.

Author: Rachel Gore
Woman sitting with her dog

Everyone experiences stress throughout their life. For a young child, stress might look like first-day-of-school jitters.  For a college student, stress might come from upcoming exams or assignments. And for older adults, stress might be caused by things like impending retirement, living on a fixed income, or the emergence of medical issues.

But not all stress is created equal. While a certain amount of stress is healthy, too much stress or experiencing stress for too long isn’t. Chronic or long-term stress isn’t good for anyone, but older adults may be even more vulnerable to its health impacts.  

“How long you have that stress, how much control you have over that stress, how we feel or perceive the stress, and if there’s a reward at the end of it are the core factors that determine good stress from bad stress,” says Jeffrey Geissler, health and fitness specialist at Hebrew SeniorLife’s NewBridge on the Charles senior living community in Dedham, MA

What is stress? 

The World Health Organization defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” It’s your body’s natural response to life’s demands.

If you’ve ever found yourself in a stressful situation where you’ve noticed your heart pounding, muscles tensing up, quick breathing, or started feeling sweaty, you probably have the “fight-or-flight” survival mechanism to thank — a stress response that occurs when your body perceives itself to be in danger. Fight-or-flight evolved to help humans and other mammals react quickly in life-threatening or dangerous situations. But if your body repeatedly responds to stressors that aren’t life-threatening as if they are, it can pose health problems.  

Acute stress is short-term stress that tends to go away once a situation is over. It can be caused by situations like being stuck in traffic or getting into an isolated argument with a loved one. Chronic stress is constant ongoing long-term stress. There are many reasons people experience chronic stress. If you’re in a contentious relationship and arguments happen every day, for example, that acute stress may become chronic.

Symptoms of stress

Symptoms of stress can manifest physically and emotionally. Some warning signs of chronic stress include:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Appetite changes
  • Heart palpitations
  • Upset stomach
  • Low energy
  • Depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling agitated or overwhelmed 

How stress affects older adults 

Multiple studies have indicated that older adults may be better at handling acute stress than their younger counterparts. A University of Michigan poll conducted in 2021 — right in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic — found that two in three U.S. adults between the ages of 50-80 ranked their mental health as very good or excellent; they also said that their mental health was as good, if not better, than it was 20 years ago. The researchers attributed life experience, wisdom, and resiliency to these results.

Another survey of nearly 1,200 adults ages 18-90 in the United States found that older age was associated with less stress and depression throughout the pandemic, and suggested that older adults have more resilience than younger adults in the face of stressful events. All of this is despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected older adults.

At the same time, seniors can be particularly vulnerable to the health impacts that come with chronic stress. During the stress response, your brain pumps out the stress hormone cortisol to help you quickly respond to a perceived threat. But elevated cortisol levels in older adults can also increase stress, decrease cognitive performance, and negatively impact memory-related brain structures like the hippocampus, according to one study published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

The cortisol surge is stronger in older adults and takes longer to come back down to normal levels. AARP also notes that cortisol can affect older adults more, increasing inflammation and affecting physical capacity. Other studies have found that chronic stress resulting in high levels of cortisol can cause increases in cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure — all risk factors for heart diseases.  

High cortisol levels have also been linked to memory issues. While current evidence doesn’t conclude that stress on its own causes dementia, it may be a factor in its progression

Causes of stress in older adults

There are a lot of reasons people get stressed out. Some common causes of chronic stress in seniors include:

Of course, people don’t react to potential stressors the same way. “Even if something isn’t stressful for you, it could be stressful for somebody else. And even small stressors can pile up and become big if they aren’t being addressed,” says Jeffrey.

Stress relief tips 

If you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed with life, Jeffrey suggests the following tips to try to reduce it. 

Move your body 

Exercising regularly isn’t just important for your physical health. It’s important for your mind, too. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins while reducing the level of stress hormones like cortisol. And your exercise routine doesn’t have to be intense to be valuable. “It can be something simple, like a walk around the building. Doing a couple of extra steps instead of just going up and down from your room to the dining room [or kitchen]” can have a positive effect, advises Jeffrey.  

Eat a balanced diet 

It’s easy to turn to unhealthy comfort foods when you’re feeling stressed, but it’s probably best to not let it become a daily habit. When you eat a healthy and balanced diet, you can help give your body the fuel it needs to work through stress. According to Harvard Health, certain foods, including omega-3 fats (found in fatty fish, nuts, and plant oils) and vegetables, could help to regulate cortisol levels. 

Prioritize sleep 

Getting a good night’s sleep is important to maintain your physical and mental health and keep your stress levels down. If you find yourself regularly getting disrupted or poor sleep, it can affect your mood and overall sense of well-being. Research has linked sleep deprivation to elevated cortisol levels, which can have other negative impacts on the body. 

Consider getting a pet 

In a survey on healthy aging, a majority of pet owners ages 50-80 say their pets reduce stress and help them enjoy life. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association says that pets can help you be more active and help you feel less alone. While the health benefits of pets for seniors are undeniable, it’s important to consider which pet, if any, fits your lifestyle before taking the plunge into pet ownership.

Lean on your social network 

Research has shown that people with high levels of social support tend to be more resilient in stressful situations. Reducing stress is one of many benefits of maintaining a social network through older adulthood, but it can feel difficult to expand your network. If you don’t have a social network to lean on, our blog post on making new friends can give you some good tips on how to branch out.  

Are you ready for a stress-free lifestyle? 

Our continuing care retirement communities in the Boston area support stress management through nutritious food, regular fitness programming, and a commitment to social support and engagement. They also eliminate the hassles of home ownership like yard maintenance, snow removal, and unexpected repairs. Explore what NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, MA and Orchard Cove in Canton, MA have to offer and contact us today to learn more. 

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Outpatient Nutrition Therapy

As part of our specialty outpatient care, we offer one-on-one nutrition counseling at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston. Our Registered Dietitians, who specialize in the needs of older adults, will help you stay in overall good health or provide suggestions to manage or prevent specific health concerns.

Senior Fitness

Our exercise physiologists specialize in fitness for older adults and will develop a personalized exercise program for you.

Senior Living

Hebrew SeniorLife offers a variety of senior living options, including independent living, assisted living, and enhanced living. There are options for every lifestyle and budget.

Grandparents spend time reading with a grandchild in the courtyard of a Hebrew SeniorLife senior living community.

About Rachel Gore

Digital Content Specialist

Rachel Gore is a Digital Content Specialist at Hebrew SeniorLife, where she supports Hebrew SeniorLife’s content marketing efforts by writing original content for digital channels, especially the Hebrew SeniorLife blog. Prior to joining Hebrew SeniorLife in 2023, Rachel worked in...

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