Stress in Older Adults: What Are the Lasting Effects?

May 12, 2021

Throughout the years, stress can take a toll not only on your mental wellbeing but also your physical health. But there’s something many aren’t discussing right now: the physical impact of stress in older adults.

The simple truth is that as we age, stress starts to impact our bodies in many different ways. Fortunately, with the right approach, there are many things we can do to mitigate the effects stress has both on our own aging bodies and on the health of our more senior loved ones.

So, let’s take a moment and learn more about how stress impacts the health of older adults and what we can do about it.


Stress in Older Adults: 4 Ways Stress Manifests at Age 65+

For the sake of continuity, let’s define “older adults” as ages 65 and over. It’s no surprise that as we age, we start to experience more symptoms.

But when you add years of stress to an aging body, you can be in for some troubling symptoms and even disease progression. Take a look at some of the most common ways stress manifests in older adults.

​1. Depression and anxiety

When you think about stress in older adults, depression and anxiety may naturally spring to mind. After all, studies have shown that over half of cases of depression first appear later in life. [1]

But the truth of the matter is that depression is not a normal part of aging! [2] So, why is it so common in our aging population? Interestingly, up to 55 percent of the elderly population is shown to be suffering from chronic stress. [3]

Moreover, studies have shown that our basal cortisol levels naturally increase as we age. [4] Here’s why that matters ….

Variable and dysregulated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are linked to low levels of serotonin (the happy hormone). [5] The link to depression? Well, depression is known to be caused by low levels of serotonin, norepinephrine (the focus hormone), and dopamine (the excitement hormone). [6]

When you consider the physiology alone (not to mention the stressful year we’ve had with the COVID-19 pandemic), it’s really no wonder that we’re seeing increasing rates of depression in older adults due to stress.

​2. Digestive troubles

At first, you may be surprised to learn that one of the ways stress in older adults affects their health is by causing digestive troubles. But once you understand the physiology a little more, it will all make sense.

First, stress is known to downregulates digestion, leading to nutritional deficiencies. And poor nutritional absorption is linked to leaky gut syndrome. But that’s not all.

Once again, we must consider the way cortisol levels impact serotonin. Now, I know we typically think of serotonin as a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical messenger for the brain. But did you know that 90 to 95 percent of all serotonin is actually made in the gut? [7]

In fact, the gut is known to contain numerous serotonin sensors. And studies have even shown that any change in serotonin signaling could actually be responsible for causing IBS symptoms such as constipation and diarrhea! [8]

3. Dementia

Stress in older adults can also manifest as dementia. In fact, a study on more than 1,300 adults revealed that each major stressful life experience can increase the age of your brain by an astonishing 4 years! [9]

So, how does stress result in dementia?

High amounts of cortisol over a long period of time can actually deplete B vitamins (which is known to cause dementia) and cause your hippocampus to shrink.

The hippocampus is critical for certain types of memory and it’s also considered to be the initial site of the development of Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia. [10]

Interestingly, a 2013 study on 800 women confirmed that stress has long-lasting harmful effects on the brain. The researchers followed the women for four decades and found that those who reported experiencing more stress were more likely to develop dementia, usually happening around age 78.

In fact, the researchers found that those who reported the most stressful events in middle age were 21 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s in old age and 15 percent more likely to develop other forms of dementia! [11]


Stress in older adults - Dr. Pingel


4. Diabetes

Believe it or not, one of the top effects of stress in older adults is the development of type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes is so common in older adults that approximately one-third of the elderly population has it and three-quarters have either pre-diabetes diabetes.

Unfortunately, it’s estimated that almost half (45.6 percent) of those ages 65 and over are undiagnosed, leaving them at risk for more severe complications. [12] 

So, where does stress come into play? Well, because your adrenal hormones play an important role in regulating your blood sugar levels, chronic stress can cause high blood sugar.

In fact, numerous studies have shown that stress can both directly and indirectly cause type 2 diabetes, the latter resulting from the ability of stress to cause obesity and metabolic syndrome. [13]

Moreover, one study revealed stress may more than double your risk of developing diabetes. [14]

Given what we learned above about how up to 55 percent of the elderly population is suffering from chronic stress, it’s really no surprise to learn that diabetes rates are rising in this demographic, is it?

Stress in Older Adults: What’s the Solution?

As with every problem, there is a solution. And, fortunately for us, this one is fairly straightforward, at least in theory. The practical element takes a little work but, trust me, it is so worth it.

If you’re not yet over the age of 65 but want to set yourself up for optimal health in older age, you can begin by trying to reduce your stress levels and also set your body up to better manage any stress you do encounter.

Check out my article on fighting adrenal fatigue, which has a complete rundown of exactly what you should do.

If you’re age 65 or older and are starting to experience some of the symptoms or conditions above, or if you just want to stall their progression, there is hope!

In addition to eating a nutritious diet known to support your body’s stress response, it’s important to practice prioritizing both the mind-body connection along with your connection with others. Here’s why ….

A 2010 study revealed that when participants with poor memory performed meditation (a great mind-body exercise) for eight weeks, they experienced improvements in both verbal fluency and logical memory. [15]

Meanwhile a study of people aged 75 years and older found that the risk of dementia is lower for those with healthy social support. [16]

Furthermore, a 2017 study revealed that when people aged 50 and over experienced positive social support from children, their risk of dementia reduced by about 30 percent! [17]

These are just a few examples of how living a balanced life filled with calming, happy moments and a nutritious, adrenal-supporting lifestyle can counteract the effects of stress in older adults.

So, take a few moments and make a plan for either yourself or your aging loved ones to set both you and your family up for the best, happiest, and healthiest years of your lives.


Key Takeaways

  • As we age, stress starts to impact our bodies in many different ways.
  • Stress in older adults can manifest in many different ways, including: depression and anxiety, digestive troubles, dementia, and diabetes.
  • Fortunately, by supporting your adrenal health and prioritizing de-stressing mind-body activities along with maintaining social support, you can reduce the impact stress has on your body.
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