Paths to Wellness: How Seniors Can Reduce Their Stress Levels
Whether it’s finances, family or our health, we all have our own personal reasons for feeling stressed. And while many of us overlook these stressors as an inevitable part of growing older, recent research shows that stress may be more dangerous than we thought.
Psychologist Dr. Vivian Diller, Ph.D. explains that chronic stress can actually cause lasting biological changes in the body. “It’s very possible that if you have a life filled with that constant stress, little by little the body is breaking down.”
This kind of rapid physical deterioration due to stress can significantly accelerate the aging process, and as nutritionist Kimberly Snyder, C.N. explains, this leads to other age-related conditions like chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue and heart disease.
Despite these potential negative effects, older adults can effectively combat stress through a number of healthy stress reduction techniques.
The Key is to Make Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Healthy living habits like a balanced diet, exercise and sleeping well can prevent cellular aging caused by stress, according to a UC San Francisco study. “It’s very important that we promote healthy living, especially under circumstances of typical experiences of life stressors like death, caregiving and job loss,” says study co-author Eli Puterman, Ph.D.
Aside from reducing stress, healthy habits like exercise can have additional health benefits of their own. One particular benefit of physical exercise, notes aging expert Rona Barrett, is that it can slow or prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Start an Exercise Routine
Starting a new exercise routine can be stressful, so it’s important to start off slow and do what you can.
Howard LeWine of Brigham and Women’s Hospital recommends starting with light, intermittent resistance training, stretching and flexibility exercises a few times per week. He also advocates 150 minutes of walking per week, which can help seniors maintain their independence.
Another benefit of walking is that it can be combined with meditation to maximize stress-relief. Wellness coach and author Elizabeth Anne Scott explains that walking meditation can help improve a person’s stress resiliency, making it easier for them to manage stress in the future.
If you’re already an avid walker and you’re up for more challenging exercise (and your doctor has approved it), consider PACE (Progressively Accelerating Cardiopulmonary Exertion). Pioneered by Al Sears, PACE is great for seniors because it can easily be modified. It’s also been proven to relieve stress and increase longevity.
Another benefit of exercise is that it can increase appetite. Dr. Mike Moreno, M.D., author of The 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging, explains that seniors tend to lose their appetites due to a sedentary lifestyle. Moreno recommends adding exercise to your routine to stimulate hunger and provide an opportunity to eat more healthful, stress-fighting foods.
Fight Stress with Nutrition
Healthy eating doesn’t typically top the list of stress reducers, but it can actually reduce the negative physiological effects of stress.
Abbott senior research scientist Matthew J. Kuchan, Ph.D. says, “A healthy diet builds a solid, more enduring foundation for your body by reducing oxidation and inflammation and by helping to reduce weight gain.”
Eating healthfully can sound like a major challenge, but as personal trainer and author Cris Dobrosielski points out, a few small changes can go a long way. “Lowering intake of sugar, saturated fat and sodium just to name just a few, can really improve one’s health and disposition,” he says.
Eating a more nutritious diet can also improve bone and joint health. This has the potential to reduce pain, which often triggers feelings of stress and anxiety. Reyna Franco, a registered dietician, says that to reap such benefits older adults should increase their consumption of foods such as salmon, avocado and nuts, which contain healthy fats.
Strengthen Your Social Networks
Regular companionship with family, friends and loved ones is one of the most significant stress reduction techniques, according to a study lead by researcher and author Dean Ornish, M.D.
“A supportive community can help reframe the reason for making changes” he explains. This makes it much easier to set and stick to healthy lifestyle goals.
And when you commit to setting goals, psychologist Laura L. Carstensen says, you tend to live longer. Carstensen, who’s also the director of the Stanford Center of Longevity, says “When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better, you feel better, and the negative emotions become less frequent and more fleeting when they occur.”
Maintaining strong social relationships as we age is also an important way to maintain cognitive function. Dr. Kathleen Hall, stress expert and founder of the Stress Institute and the Mindful Living Network, says that people with strong social networks experience improved mood and delayed memory loss says.
Participating in local community activities and meeting with friends on a weekly basis are two important ways to enjoy the benefits of social interaction.
Get Sufficient Sleep
Dr. Michael Thorpy and Shelby Freedman Harris of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore say that all kinds of stress, even positive, can trigger insomnia. “The stress may be positive, such as the birth of a baby, a new job or marriage, or negative, such as financial concerns, bereavement or working odd hours.”
It’s clear that stress can cause sleep disturbances, but few people consider how intertwined sleep and stress really are. Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D., author of the book High Octane Women, says that sleep and lack of stress often happen in a vicious cycle. “Sleep is a basic human need, and when we don’t get enough of it, just about every aspect of our functioning is affected.”
Beyond insomnia, lack of sleep can lead to other serious health problems among the elderly. In a study from the Department of Neurological Surgery at Columbia University on community-dwelling seniors aged 65 and older, sleep inadequacy was associated with a higher risk of incident dementia.
The negative effects of stress-induced insomnia can be reduced through a number of measures including:
- making the room as dark as possible,
- following a relaxing routine before bed
- avoiding light from screens and technology.
Jeffrey Greeson, assistant psychology professor at Rowan University, agrees that avoiding technology and screens is an especially important step for improving sleep. By checking late-night texts or staying up late watching TV, Greeson says: “We get re-engaged and another hour of our sleep time has evaporated. Like coffee or intense exercise right before bed, technology brightens the brain when you should be dimming it.”
Adopt an Animal
Owning a pet or spending time with animals is also an effective way to maintain physical and emotional health as we age. Val Edwards of dog training company Bark Busters adds that animals “are great companions for the elderly; and give them a reason to walk in many instances. Most importantly, they give them a feeling of not being lonely.”
If you don’t have the resources to adopt a pet, Dr. Andrew Weil points out that even volunteering at an animal shelter or spending time with a friend’s pet can still be beneficial while also being cost-effective.
Simple healthy lifestyle changes can have a big impact on relieving stress and its negative impacts. With the added benefits of happiness, disease prevention and longevity, it’s never too late to take steps towards stress reduction.