Food for Thought: Stress & aging

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Scientists have identified the first direct link between stress and aging, a finding that could explain why intense, long-term emotional strain can make people sick and grow old before their time.

The research demonstrates the mind can not be separated from the body. Stress impacts health by modulating the rate of cellular aging.

In other words, stress damage to DNA is the culprit behind premature wrinkles, gray hair and diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular, insulin resistance and autoimmune disorders.

While stress can impact persons of all ages from the very young to the elderly, I would like to address stress in the older adult and discuss ways in which to manage it. Change is a fact of life for everyone and older people are no exception.

The only distinction is their issues may be somewhat different. For instance they may be gripping with changes in the health of a family member, retirement, death of a spouse, friend or family member, injury or illness, change of income, living conditions or loss of independence.

For some even daily living can also be stressful. There may be financial worries or caring for a disabled spouse.

As one ages life becomes full of losses: friends, independence, jobs status, standard of living, etc.

To manage stress there are a number of things a person can do:

1. Positive Thinking. This is one of the most powerful and effective weapon people of any age can use against stress. Don’t fret. When you find yourself worrying about a problem focus on ways to attack the problem. Believe in yourself. When preparing to meet a tense situation, tell yourself that you can deal effectively with the situation - and chances are you will. Visualize a positive outcome, not the outcome you fear will happen.

2. Become Active. Team up with a friend who shares your interest and plan activities together. Be a volunteer. Help others and take your mind off yourself. You will gain a better perspective on your own worries, and you will find satisfaction at the same time. Develop interests. Set some time aside for a hobby, sport, or home project. Spending time each day doing something you enjoy is a great way to relieve stress.

3. Stay Healthy And Fit. Eat a balanced diet. The body becomes unbalanced if we eat too much of one thing or not enough of one thing. Exercise regularly. In addition to helping the body manage stress, exercise can help slow the effects of aging. The benefits include: improved heart and lung functioning, stronger bones and muscle strength, increased flexibility, and improved sleep. Consult your physician first before starting an exercise program and always start slowly. Don’t overdo it.

4. Learn To Relax. Awareness breathing is a good way to begin. Relax your body and erase any stressful thoughts from your mind. Take a deep breath. Let your abdomen and then your chest fill with air. Count to four and very slowly, then exhale as if you were blowing on a hot teaspoon of soup. Listen to relaxation tapes or music. Learn yoga or meditation. Visualize yourself in a serene place - on a beach, in the woods or in a cozy room with a fireplace.

5. Beware Of Alcohol And Drugs. Don’t turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve stress. It can make problems worse. Use prescription and over the counter drugs only as your physician recommends. Drugs stay longer in older bodies than in younger ones, so use all drugs with care.

6. Other Resources For Stress Include: your physician, professional counselor, self help groups, stress management workshops, clergy or a good friend. Remember everyone experiences stress. How you think about it is more important than the actual situation. The key is learning how to manage it.

- Dr. Leta A. Livoti Ph.D, LCSW, LCPC is a psychotherapist in Thompson Falls.

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