When the golden years are not so golden

aaAlmira Osmanovic Thunstrom is a PhD Candidate at the Aging Research Center at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and tweets as @almirathunstrom. In this blog, she introduces her recent Age & Ageing paper on perceived stress levels amongst over-65s.

Growing up in the 1990’s my vision of ageing came from the show The Golden Girls. The show depicted ageing as a time of great joy, adventure and the daily stressors of work and children as minimal in the post-retirement years. I was also greatly blessed to live with my grandfather, whose years were far from golden. He worried about his deteriorating health, he missed his wife and eventually diseases got the best of him: he suffered from vascular dementia and passed away at the tender age of 66. Already at a young age, I witnessed how diverse the ageing process could be.

When I started to work in the Swedish National Aging and Care Study of Kungsholmen (SNAC-K), an on-going population-based longitudinal study whose aim is to identify risk factors for diseases and functional decline in old age, my observations of the diversity of health status in older adults was strengthened. The publications from the SNAC-K study have provided great insight into a broad population of older adults and their mental and physical health, including stressors that younger adults are less likely to face, such as disability, chronic multimorbidity and bereavement.

However, when initiating our project about the perception of stress in older adults, and examining scientific literature about stress and ageing, we encountered a great paradox: the older we get, the less stress we perceive. Although older adults may possess experience, thus coping with every day stress more efficiently, very old age is a process of encountering new stressors related to health and psychosocial change.

Further investigation showed that most of the previous literature had not included or actively excluded older adults with mental or physical disabilities. Hence, we hypothesized that in a representative population of older adults in their 60s, 70s and 80+, we would find an increase in stress perception in the most fragile group, those aged 80 years and over.

The results were clear: perceived stress increased with age in our population. What surprised us was that neither gender, education, living alone or having financial difficulties changed that association, but as soon as any health related stressor was taken into account, the stress and age relationship was no longer present. It confirmed our initial hypothesis: not age per se, but ageing-related health impairments negatively affect coping with stress in very old adults. The golden years are perhaps not so golden if health is not present.

We hope that this study demonstrates the importance of understanding determinants of stress perception in “real word” aging population, and the importance of health promotion even in very old adults.

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