By: Richard W. Bunch, PhD. PT, CBES
Aging is a biological process that cannot be avoided.
But, can being proactive help you age healthier?
In previous articles, I spoke about proper nutrition and exercise, the third important lifestyle factor to consider is your stress level. Stress can adversely affect the health of older individuals in particular. Stress hormones can do terribly bad things to your mental and physical state, and reduce your ability to cope. Circulating stress hormones have been shown to be higher in an older person than a younger person. As we pass fifty years of age, there are actual physiological changes in the brain that result in a higher baseline level of stress hormones such as cortisol and neurotransmitters such as adrenaline. That means our threshold for stress becomes lower as we age. Older people often report that things that did not cause them to feel stressed when they were younger, now cause them to feel much more stressed.
As I mentioned, cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced at higher levels as we age. It is necessary to understand that cortisol at high levels is very destructive to living long because cortisol has two major effects on our body. Cortisol converts protein into sugar and increases fat in our blood stream. It also increases the bad cholesterol carrier (LDL), which brings fat to the linings of our arteries. Why does cortisol do this? Remember, cortisol is a stress hormone and the purpose of a stress reaction is to prepare a person to run away from danger or to fight (the fight or flight response). I will call this the primitive stress reaction. Sugar and fat are the primary fuels for short-term and long-term muscle activity needed for fight or flight. This has never changed, and that is why cortisol continues to increase fat and sugar in our blood vessels when we perceive stress.
In our modern world, most of our stress deals with non-life-threatening issues such as our economy, personal relationships, divorce, raising teenagers, etc. However, the brain does not recognize the difference between modern sources of stress and primitive sources of stress. So when we’re under any kind of stress we experience elevations in blood levels of sugar and fat due to the effects of stress-induced cortisol production. If we had the stress control mechanisms to keep cortisol down that we had when we were younger, it would be easier for an older person to manage stress.
Another problem with having higher baseline levels of stress hormones is these hormones interfere with our abilities to focus and learn. Elevated stress hormones cause excitation of hundreds of thousands of nerve cells in our brainstem that are normally “quiet” when we are younger. The result is foggy thinking and short-term memory problems. It is like using a computer when the hard drive is 90 percent full. A goal for the older person then is to relax the excess brain activity and reduce the background noise. In a relaxed state, the brain can concentrate and learn better; and there is less memory loss. This can be accomplished by learning to better manage stress.
TWO STEPS TO BETTER MANAGE STRESS
In order to better manage stress as we age, we must take two steps.
1. The first step is acquiring a sheet of paper that has two columns that can be used to write down notes. Sit in a quiet place and be brutally honest; write down a list of issues that are causing stress in your life and put them in the left hand column. We will call these issues “stress factors.” Once the stress factor list is complete, write down action steps to resolve each stress factor in the right hand column. For example, a stress factor may be excess body weight. The action step can be to start on a diet and exercise program immediately. People will often find that by systematically defining stress factors and creating action steps, the process of just doing this activity will actually lower stress. Managing and reducing stress occurs when we develop more control of our life.
2. The second vital step in stress management is to exercise and eat healthy. From a total health perspective, exercise is the single most valuable thing you can do, with more health benefits than any medicine. Exercise produces endorphins, a morphine-like substance in the brain that reduces the effects of stress hormones. It relaxes the arteries, lowers levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisone, reduces blood sugar, and elevates HDL, the good cholesterol carrier. HDL will bring cholesterol out of your blood vessels (thus cleaning them out) and bring it to your liver where it is converted into harmless bile. This is an exact opposite reaction to stress-induced production of the bad cholesterol carrier, LDL. Exercise also helps to prevent abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and strokes.
The bottom line is that although we cannot change our genetic tree, research supports that we can alter lifestyle habits that can improve the quality of life, slow the aging process and add years to our lives. But we have to make a commitment to change.