Stress and the immune system
Alongside the benefits of growing older, ageing can also come with new stressors. For example, older adults may experience financial, social and personal losses, and declining health, independence, cognition and physical function.
If not managed well, this upward curve of psychosocial stressors in later life may increase the risk of illness and disease. Some of these negative effects on health can be attributed to stress-induced chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with changes in the immune system that may reduce sensitivity to early signs of infection.
Different types of stressors that may impact the immune system:
In summary, while acute and brief stressors can play a role in the fight-or-flight response, chronic stressors may accelerate ageing and immune system dysfunction, and increase the risk of infection and some diseases.
Recognising signs of stress
Given that chronic stress holds the potential to cause long-term complications, particularly in older adults, it’s essential to know how to recognise common signs and symptoms of stress.
- Physical signs and symptoms of stress may present as:
- Frequent headaches
- Chronic aches and pains
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Upset stomach
- Frequent urination
- Mental changes associated with stress include:
- Poor concentration
- Unusual patterns of judgement
- Low libido
- Feeling overwhelmed, lacking control
- Irritability and moodiness
- Some of the following behavioural changes may be observed:
- Tobacco, alcohol or drug abuse
- Social isolation
- Difficulty sleeping
- Reduced physical activity
- Poor eating habits (under- or over-eating)
Note: The above signs and symptoms may be associated with other underlying conditions. Please consult a healthcare professional for personalised medical advice.
Many different strategies can help alleviate stress. It's important to find the ones that work for you.
Here are some suggestions:
Take care of your body from the inside out
Start making healthy lifestyle choices, such as:
- Maintaining a balanced, nutritious diet
- Getting enough quality sleep
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption, and other harmful drugs
Stay connected with friends and family
Spending quality time with loved ones can help distract from daily pressures. Family and friends can also provide a supportive environment to talk through the things that are causing you stress and help you put them into perspective.
Learn relaxation techniques
Practising mental (e.g., meditation, mindfulness) and physical (e.g., deep breathing, yoga) relaxation techniques may help alleviate stress.
Explore the great outdoors
Spend more time outside with nature, visit new places and soak up some sunshine (with adequate UV protection, of course).
Find a new hobby or creative outlet
Reduce time spent overthinking by channelling your mental efforts into a new hobby such as photography, gardening, or knitting.
Take a break from stressful situations
Where possible, it might be a good idea to remove yourself from situations that are causing stress.
Seek professional help
Trained health professionals (such as doctors, nurses, or allied health professionals) can help identify stressors and develop a plan to assist with managing them.
The above content provides examples of potential stressors and associated signs and symptoms but is not an exhaustive or absolute list. Furthermore, the described signs and symptoms may be related to other underlying conditions. This information is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Please consult a healthcare professional regarding any new or existing signs or symptoms.
NP-AU-NA-WCNT-210003 Date of GSK Approval: June 2021
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