Chronic stress can affect almost every physical process in the body, including digestion, glucose production, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and brain functioning. A high-stress lifestyle can threaten not only good health, but also well-being, relationships and productivity -- particularly in older people who are more greatly affected by stress.
“The greatest threat to our lives is our lifestyle,” Dr. Kathleen Hall, author, stress expert and founder of the Stress Institute and the Mindful Living Network, tells the Huffington Post. "If you slow down and get some relaxation techniques, it absolutely will effect your health outcome."
Stress management and the development of a relaxing lifestyle should be a health priority for post 50s, and recognizing the potential health risks is a crucial first step. Scroll through the list below for five ways that stress could be harming your mind and body -- and five helpful tips to creating a healthier, less stressful lifestyle.
Impacts Of Chronic Stress:
1. Weight Gain And Diabetes
"The more cholesterol and chronic stress you have, the easier the weight gain is," says Hall. "When we are stressed, the body absolutely holds on to weight for self-preservation."
Stress also effects glucose production, which can contribute to the development of diabetes. In triggering the fight-or-flight response, elevated levels of stress hormones make stored energy (glucose and fat) available to cells as a way to help the body escape danger.
2. Decreased Immune System Function
Stress is known to weaken the immune system, and post 50s are particularly vulnerable to stress-related changes in immune system functioning. A 2002 study found that even chronic, low-grade depression can contribute to a suppressed immune system. This can lead to slower-healing wounds and increased susceptibility to the flu and other infections.
3. Higher Risk Of Hypertension
When the body reacts to stress, blood pressure can spike temporarily -- and what's more, chronic stress can contibute to long-term issues with high blood pressure (hypertension).
"Stress plays a role in the development of hypertension," says Hall. "People with hypertension are 40 percent more likely to develop cognitive impairment when they’re older. The brain naturally shrinks; hypertension increases [shrinking]."
4. Increased Risk Of Chronic Disease
Chronic stress is a risk factor in the development of health problems like heart disease and cancer. By increasing the body's levels of inflammation, high levels of stress hormones have been shown to play a role in a number of disorders, including many autoimmune diseases.
5. Memory Loss
It's no secret that stress is one of the biggest culprits in causing in memory loss, difficulty concentrating and confusion. Chronic stress can interfere with memory by inhibiting glutamane signaling in the pre-frontal cortex. Although memory loss is a normal part of the aging process, high stress levels can significantly increase and expedite this process.
Creating A More Relaxing Lifestyle:
1. Find A Community.
Countless studies have shown that those with strong social networks enjoy less stress, better health, improved mood and longer lives.
"Community is a real huge marker on aging," says Hall. "People who have an active social life delay memory loss tremendously; they’re much healthier."
Hall recommends getting a pet, meeting friends for dinner at least once a week and participating in local community activities, particularly for those who are retired.
2. Exercise The Body.
“[Exercise] actually reduces the risk of death by a third. Iit reduces the potential of getting chronic disease by 40 percent," says Hall. "And it retards aging. “
But you don't need a personal trainer or even a gym membership to do it. Try taking a 10-minute walk around your office at lunch, or meeting friends in the morning or evening to take a 30-minute walk around your neighborhood. Getting outside in nature also offers the bonus of reducing stress hormones and lowering blood pressure.
3. Exercise The Brain.
Hall recommends that older adults spend five to 10 minutes per day doing brain-boosting games and activities. Apps like Brain Trainer by Luminosity can help promote healthy brain functioning and improve memory.
“It can actually reduce the physical aging of your brain and body as much as five to seven to 10 years," says Hall. "These exercises work the brain just like you’d be working out in the gym."
4. Make Time For Quiet And Meditation.
Meditation has the power to not only boost the size of your brain, but also to improve immune system function, decrease blood pressure and heart rate and reduce cholesterol. Start out by setting aside two to 10 minutes, once or twice a day, for silent meditation. Hall also suggests soothing nature sounds and positive affirmations to help quiet the mind.
Memorizing and repeating a positive affirmation can also reduce cortisol by up to 40 percent. Research conducted at the University of California found that positive self-affirmations can act as a powerful buffer against environmental and emotional stressors.
5. Eat A De-Stressing Diet
Maintaining a healthy diet is one of the most important factors in creating a stress-free lifestyle. In addition to avoiding processed foods and incorporating nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables into your diet, make sure to also start each day with healthy foods. People who eat breakfast have been shown to live longer -- it keeps mood stable and weight down, and promotes healthy aging, according to Hall.
B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids can also play a critical role in healthy aging. Omega-3s can help alleviate anxiety, stress and depression, and they also add fat around the neurons in the brain to help promote neural communication. Be sure to also add vitamin B6, which increases the serotonin in the body, to your diet. Hall's superfood for aging is blueberries, which contain powerful antioxidants that can boost brain functioning and improve memory.
Tell us: How are you fighting stress and creating a relaxing lifestyle? Share your thoughts in the comments or tweet @HuffPost50.
Visit our health page for more information on how to take care of yourself post 50.