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Swedish Health System | Seattle, WA
Kadlec Regional Medical Center | Richland, WA
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As people age, new stresses arise. But researchers say society will benefit by an engaged population of older people.
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How to fight age-related stress? Find your purpose

In many traditional societies, older people are treated with increasing respect, in recognition of their experience and accumulated wisdom. In the West today, however, the story is different.

In our society, it is often the young who are considered more knowledgeable, especially about technology, and more adaptable to change. The young are perceived to have the advantage in the workplace, and youth culture is celebrated in advertising and entertainment. For older people, this gap has contributed to stress associated with everything from getting hired for a job to medical conditions.

“Aging is unpopular in the United States,” wrote Elisa J. Sobo and Martha O. Loustaunau in the book “The Cultural Context of Health, Illness and Medicine.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What are some of the stressors?

The American Psychological Association lists some common reasons for age-related stress:

  • Serious illness
  • Multiple medical conditions, such as diabetes and arthritis
  • Physical limitations, such as not being able to run or even walk comfortably
  • Chronic pain
  • Retirement
  • Financial concerns related to living on a reduced or fixed income
  • Cognitive changes
  • Caretaking demands as loved ones become infirm

A study recently publicized on National Public Radio explored the not-always-subtle ways employers favor hiring the young for lower-skilled jobs over more experienced job applicants. While explicit age discrimination is illegal under employment law, the study by three economists says there’s “compelling evidence that older workers experience age discrimination.” This, too, can increase stress.

Perhaps most crucially, as Martin Pinquart, M.D., wrote in a 2002 analysis, “in old age, maintaining high levels of purpose in life may become more difficult, due to increasing losses.”

This matters because, as a 2010 JAMA Psychiatry study put it, “Greater purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of AD (Alzheimer’s disease) and MCI (mild cognitive impairment) in community-dwelling older persons.”

What are some of the solutions?

The JAMA Psychiatry study concluded that the connection between mental acuity and having a purpose in life suggests new ways to enhance the health and well-being of older adults.

Everyone knows it’s important for older people to stay busy, wrote Jacquelyn James, director of the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. But she said, “it’s not just about staying involved as we age, but staying engaged.

A Sloan Center study done in 2010-11 examined adults ranging in age from younger than 50 to older than 65, measuring how much time they spent in paid work, volunteering, caregiving, training and education, and how enthusiastic they were about these activities. Researchers found that adults older than 50 are, on average, more engaged than their peers under 50.

“This high level of engagement is directly linked to overall well-being among older adults” and benefits society as a whole, James wrote.

If you are an older adult, how have you stayed in engaged? Share your story and tips in our comment section.

As people age, new stresses arise. But researchers say society will benefit by an engaged population of older people.