Nobody likes stress, but in recent years, the effects of stress as we age has garnered a lot of attention. Health complications, financial concerns, isolation, and loss of friends and family takes a huge toll on the lives of seniors. While we evolved our stress response to help us deal with dangers, many older people are discovering that stress itself is one of the greatest dangers to their continued health. We’ve put together a list of some of the most common negative side effects of stress in older individuals, as well as some tips to combat these problems.
Loss of Memory and Decision-Making Skills
The brain responds to stress by diverting blood flow away from certain parts of the brain and towards the ones that control muscle movement and risk calculation. Unfortunately, it diverts blood, oxygen and nutrients away from the parts of the brain that control short-term memory formation and decision making. This can lead to individuals seeming forgetful, unsure, or even making bad decisions.
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure problems are common in the elderly population, as the body works harder to get oxygen and other nutrients where they need to be. Undue stress increases the need to get those nutrients to muscles and other systems, so the heart works even harder to keep up. Managing stress levels is one of the most overlooked aspects of managing high blood pressure.
The stress response causes muscles to tighten, breathing to increase, and your heart to pump faster. This is designed to give us an extra burst of energy to help up deal with an imminent threat, but for most older people, stress isn’t a physical threat, but an emotional or mental response. The physiological response that occurs leaves them feeling physically drained, even if they didn’t exert themselves. This leads to excessive fatigue and can cause drowsiness during the day, disrupting sleep patterns.
Stress can cause your system to be flooded with adrenaline at the most inconvenient times: like bedtime. Seniors dealing with stress often find themselves having difficulty sleeping, or dealing with other issues such tooth grinding, which can lead to headaches, jaw pain, and difficulty eating. Consider purchasing a mouth guard to wear at night to help relieve these symptoms.
Weakened Immune Response
As we age, our cells begin to break down and almost all of our systems stop working as effectively. Stress causes our body to divert energy and resources towards preparing the fight or flight response, and winds up taking resources away from other systems, like the immune system and the digestive system
When the body begins to divert those resources to where it thinks they are needed, eventually the systems that have been “downgraded” in priority will start to shut down. When digestion stops, the results can be not only uncomfortable, but damaging. Excessive indigestion can lead to esophageal problems and ulcers throughout the digestive tract.
Irritability and Anxiety
Headaches, mouth pain, acid reflux from indigestion, fatigue, and all of the other negative symptoms take a toll on your mood and emotional health as well. Worry about whether you will ever feel good again, worry about the stressors that you are dealing with, and the inability to make decisions often leads to being short-tempered and irritable. Older people often snap at caregivers, seem unusually cranky, or become depressed and withdrawn. Many people are quick to attribute these changes to dementia, but in many cases, these behaviors can be reduced or eliminated by managing stress effectively.
One of the important things to remember is that all of these problems are interconnected. Stress leads to high blood pressure and fatigue, which can exacerbate insomnia and indigestion, causing pain that leads to irritability and anxiety, and therefore, more stress. Getting stress under control can have overwhelming benefits on the overall health and wellness of seniors.
Sarah Kearns is a hard working mother of three daughters. She is a Senior Communications Manager for BizDb, an online resource with information about businesses in the UK. She loves cooking, reading history books and writing about green living.