Learn to Cope: Even Moderate Stress Can Have Lethal Effects

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New research has found that men who have undergone moderate or high levels of stressful life events are at much greater risk of death

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Most adults have experienced the reality that stressful life events can take a serious toll on health. Not only mental, but physical health can suffer in the wake of major upsets like the death of a spouse, the loss of a job, or divorce. Now, a new study finds that the more stressful life events men weather in middle age or older, the greater the risk of death. But luckily there's a limit, so the most stressed-out lives won't end too soon.

The current study looked at 1,000 healthy men who enrolled in a long-term study in the 1960s. The data the researchers used, however, spanned the years 1985 to 2003, so events occurring later in life were the point of interest.

"Most studies look at typical stress events that are geared at younger people, such as graduation, losing a job, having your first child. I modified the stress measure to reflect the kinds of stress that we know impacts us more as we age," said lead author Carolyn Aldwin. These stressors included the divorce of a child, retirement, or having to put a parent or spouse in a retirement home or institution.

Aldwin found that men who had undergone moderate or high levels of stressful life events (having an average of three and six stressful life events, respectively) had a 50 percent greater risk of mortality than people in the low stress group (who had two or fewer stressful life events). Interestingly, there was no difference in mortality risk for people in the moderate and high stress groups.

"It seems there is a threshold and perhaps with anything more than two major life events a year and people just max out," said Aldwin. This is relatively good news for people who have had multiple stressful events befall them later in life.

There were other variables that were linked to higher mortality, like abstaining from alcohol completely, being single, and smoking. "So perhaps," says Aldwin, "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 authors also point out that since most of the participants were mainly white, middle-class men, the research will have to be repeated in women and people of other ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. These groups of people could theoretically handle stress in different ways, which could affect the relationship between stress and mortality.

"People are hardy, and they can deal with a few major stress events each year," said Aldwin. "But our research suggests that long-term, even moderate stress can have lethal effects."

This is why learning to cope with the stresses that life throws at you is critical, for both your emotional and physical resilience. As more research comes in to explain how stress -- acute and chronic -- affects our bodies, it will no doubt shed light on what coping methods are best for specific situations.

Aldwin is a researcher at Oregon State University, and published her study in the Journal of Aging Research.

Image: Janina Dierks/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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