The researchers found, on average, participants who reported more stress experienced a steeper decline in functional health over the three years.
However, subjective age seemed to provide a protective buffer. The link between stress and a decline in functional health was weaker among people who felt younger than their actual age. That protective effect was strongest among the oldest participants.
“Generally, we know that functional health declines with advancing age, but we also know that these age-related functional health trajectories are remarkably varied. As a result, some individuals enter old age and very old age with quite good and intact health resources, whereas others experience a pronounced decline in functional health, which might even result in need for long-term care,” said study lead author Markus Wettstein, who is now at University of Heidelberg. “Our findings support the role of stress as a risk factor for functional health decline, particularly among older individuals, as well as the health-supporting and stress-buffering role of a younger subjective age.”
The researchers say the results suggest that helping people feel younger could reduce the harm caused by stress and improve health among older adults. More research is needed to help determine what kind of interventions would work best, however.
For example, Wettstein said, messaging campaigns to counteract ageism and negative age stereotypes and to promote positive views on aging could help people feel younger. Also, stress management training could prevent functional health loss among older adults, he added.
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