By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


Aging Well: Diet and Stress

Last month, we discussed the ever-increasing importance of the role of diet in our ability to age well. This month, we will focus on the role of stress and how it impedes our ability to age well.

It has long been known that low levels of stress translate into longer, healthier lives. Long-term stress can have detrimental effects on the brain and can lead to premature aging. When we experience stress, we activate biological systems in our bodies that affect three main components: the pituitary, the adrenal glands, and the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a small region near the base of the brain and, when under stress, it signals the pituitary to release a hormone into the bloodstream. The hormone travels to the adrenal glands on the kidneys and triggers the release of what is often referred to as stress hormones. The release of these hormones produces what is often called a “fight or flight” response.

The fight or flight response is the body's way of quickly preparing you to deal with a dangerous situation. For example, if you are walking down the street and someone appears out of an alley, pulls a gun, and demands your purse or wallet, you will get a sudden jolt of adrenaline and your senses will be heightened. Your pupils will dilate, your heart will start to race, and your mouth will go dry. These are automatic responses to the body's perceived threat.

The stress hormones also make glucose available so that you will have the energy you need. The stress hormones also turn off body systems that are not essential for fighting or fleeing. All of these biological effects prepare us to be aggressive and fight if that is necessary, or to run away with extra speed if that is the better option. In a life or death situation, this kind of fight or flight response is a very good thing because it increases our chances of survival. But chronic activation of these stress hormones in day to day life is very bad for us, both mentally and physically. The day-to-day stresses of work, financial problems, relationships, disability, etc. all accelerate our stress levels.

Some of the health problems associated with chronic stress are weight gain, digestive problems, and heart disease. Stress can also lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and chronic stress can even speed up aging.

In fact, chronic stress and abnormally high glucose levels have also been found to impair brain function. As we age, we tend to lose neurons (brain cells) in our hippocampus, which is the key brain structure involved in long term memory. There is even evidence that chronic stress can speed up aging at the molecular level. That means that cells cannot normally duplicate or divide themselves, and as a result there is a limit on how many times most cells can divide. That may play a role in how long we live.

Is there anything we can do to control our stress levels to live longer, healthier lives? There is, and one proven method for stress reduction is meditation. Meditation lowers heart rate, reduces blood pressure, and has been found to lower levels of bad cholesterol. Furthermore, three of the most effective approaches to reducing stress are physical activity, social activity, and, you guessed it, a healthy diet. All of these activities have been repeatedly shown to reduce stress and the health problems associated with it. In fact, this is one of the reasons why exercising, socializing, and eating right tend to extend our life span. It is precisely because they all reduce stress levels.

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Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....