Stress is a fact of life for all of us, of course, in various stages of life – retirement is not usually considered at the top of that list. But for many seniors, the retirement years can bring on its own unique and unexpected sources of anxiety — the transition to unstructured time; financial worries; health issues; perhaps having to serve as caregiver to a sick spouse. And while stress knows no age boundaries, what it does to the senior brain in particular is quite unique, and why researchers are indicating its possible link to dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Our brains normally respond to stress by releasing the hormone cortisol, which in short-acting doses helps keep our blood sugar and blood pressure up so that we can better cope with what’s making us anxious. More prolonged periods of chronic stress make cortisol’s role more problematic, linking it to everything from a weakened immune system to cancer and heart disease. In the aging brain, neurons are less resilient and less able to effectively process cortisol, particularly when it is chronically elevated. It builds up, causing structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus, which is the brain’s memory center, and one of the prime areas affected by Alzheimer’s. High cortisol levels are also thought to contribute to amyloid plaques, or protein clumps in the brain – another hallmark of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Obviously there’s no way to prevent stress entirely – for seniors or anyone else. But doctors conducting these studies do see less potential for cognitive decline in older adults who learn to combat their body’s stress reaction with what experts call a relaxation response. While it takes a little practice, the relaxation response helps lower cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure, while helping the body get its maximum oxygen benefit to the brain and organs. There are lots of accessible ways for seniors to tap into this form of stress reduction, including:
- Mindfulness and Meditation: These can be learned and practiced easily in your own home; head to the AARP for some some great suggestions on how to get started.
- Yoga – although it can be quite a strenuous workout for younger people, senior yoga is its own fitness category now, centering on low-impact poses and easier paths to flexibility and centered breathing.
- Tai Chi – with its relaxed movements and gentle stretching, Tai Chi is hugely popular at senior centers and assisted living communities. Visit the Taoist Tai Chi Society to find a location offering classes near you.
Of course, experts always include a healthy diet and regular exercise as critical components in overall stress reduction and improved wellness.
Have any good stress reductions techniques worked well for you or someone you know? Tell us in comments!