A long-term study has discovered that ongoing moderate or high levels of stress contribute to a 50 percent higher mortality rate in men.
Unfortunately, researchers discovered only a few strategies appear to protect from the detrimental effects of prolonged stress – people who self-reported that they had good health tended to live longer and married men also fared better.
Moderate drinkers also lived longer than non-drinkers.
Interestingly, being a teetotaler and a smoker increased the risk for mortality, said Carolyn Aldwin, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
“So perhaps trying to keep your major stress events to a minimum, being married and having a glass of wine every night is the secret to a long life.”
The study, found in the Journal of Aging Research, is the first to show a direct link between long-term stress and mortality in an aging population.
The current study was modified to document major stressors – such as death of a spouse or a putting a parent into a retirement home – that specifically affect middle-aged and older people.
“Most studies look at typical stress events that are geared at younger people, such as graduation, losing a job, having your first child,” Aldwin said.
“I modified the stress measure to reflect the kinds of stress that we know impacts us more as we age, and even we were surprised at how strong the correlation between stress trajectories and mortality was.”
Aldwin said prior studies examined stress only at one time point, while this study documented patterns of stress over a number of years.
Researchers surveyed almost 1,000 middle-class and working-class men for an 18-year period, from 1985 to 2003. All the men in the study were picked because they had good health when they first signed up to be part of the Boston VA Normative Aging Study in the 1960s.
Low stress was characterized by two or fewer major life events in a year, compared with an average of three for the moderate group and up to six for the high stress group.
One of the study’s most surprising findings was that the mortality risk was similar for the moderate vs. high stress group.
“It seems there is a threshold and perhaps with anything more than two major life events a year and people just max out,” Aldwin said.
“We were surprised the effect was not linear and that the moderate group had a similar risk of death to the high-risk group.”
While this study looked specifically at major life events and stress trends, the research group will next explore chronic daily stress as well as coping strategies.
“People are hardy, and they can deal with a few major stress events each year,” Aldwin said. “But our research suggests that long-term, even moderate stress can have lethal effects.”
Source: Oregon State University