Weekly column

We have all heard stress can make you sick. But scientists are now discovering that chronic stress, a mainstay of modern life, doesn't merely exacerbate disease — it actually can cause it.

The most stressful events in anyone’s life include the death of a loved one, chronic illness, caregiving, job loss or a job change — according to poll data collected from an AARP nationwide online survey of 1,000 adults age 50 and older. Everyone experiences stress, of course, but it's particularly prevalent among adults over 50. In a recent Harvard University-Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-NPR poll, about a quarter of 2,500 participants said they'd experienced "a great deal" of stress in the last month. Another poll, conducted in August by AARP, found 37 percent of adults over 50 experienced a major stressful life event in the past year, such as the death of a family member, chronic illness or a job loss.

The human body reacts to stress by first pumping adrenaline and then cortisol into the bloodstream to focus the mind and body for immediate action. It is that “fight-or-flight” instinct. The adrenaline rush from the initial stress response can occasionally pose health risks. Then the body releases cortisol. Cortisol does serve many important functions, including reducing inflammation. But when chronic stress exposes the body to a relentless stream of cortisol, as happens when stress is constant, cells become desensitized to the hormone, it can cause long term inflammation. Long-term chronic inflammation damages blood vessels and brain cells, leads to insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) and promotes painful joint diseases.

There are many other things that can happen as a result of stress, including the common cold, weight gain, slower healing, sleep dysfunction, heart disease, depression, back and neck pain, ulcers and other stomach problems. Smartphones, laptops and tablets also can contribute to stress. It’s hard to take a break. Many of us can no longer turn the stress response off because our work and family issues are with us constantly.

The best ways to deal with stress include exercise, mindful meditation and increasing your social supports. We have to learn to set limits, say no, make time for ourselves and practice good self-care. It is a difficult balance, but the consequences of chronic stress can lead to many other health problems and a general feeling of malaise.

There are many activities offered in our area to help seniors and caregivers stay active, exercise, increase their social supports and help them to just take time for themselves. These activities can be found at your local senior center, YMCA or recreation center. For more information on this and other topics of interest to seniors, contact Butler County Department on Aging at 316-775-0500.