Media reports routinely discuss how daily stress may negatively affect people’s lives, including their physical health as well as their mental and emotional well-being.
The sensation of daily stress increases as individuals become older, but there is some good news as well. In a recent study, David Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, found that as people age, both the number of daily stressors and their sensitivity to them decrease. The results of the study were published in Developmental Psychology.
“There’s something about growing old that leads to fewer stressors,” said Almeida. “This could be the types of social roles that we fill as we age. As younger people, we may be juggling more, including jobs, families and homes, all of which create instances of daily stress. But as we age, our social roles and motivations change. Older people talk about wanting to maximize and enjoy the time they have.”
The research team used data from the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE), a national study led by Almeida at Penn State that collected detailed data on daily life from over 40,000 days in the lives of over 3,000 persons over a 20-year period beginning in 1995.
Respondents ranged in age from 25 to 74 at the start of the study and were invited to take part as part of the wider Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) project sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute on Aging.
For eight days, respondents took part in phone interviews that assessed their everyday stress levels. These daily assessments were repeated at about nine-year intervals, resulting in a 20-year longitudinal daily diary.
The researchers observed a reduction in the impact of daily stress in both the number of daily stressors reported by respondents and their emotional sensitivity to them. Stressors were reported on over 50 per cent of days by 25-year-olds, but only 30 per cent of days by 70-year-olds.
In addition to a reduction in the number of daily stresses reported, Almeida and her colleagues discovered that as people age, they become less emotionally reactive to daily stressors when they do occur.
“A 25-year-old is much grumpier on the days when they experience a stressor, but as we age, we really figure out how to decrease those exposures,” said Almeida, who noted that daily stress steadily decreases until the mid-50s, when people are the least affected by stress exposures.
While these data reveal a decrease in daily stressor reports and reactivity into the mid-50s, Almeida writes that early evidence suggests that later age, into the late 60s and early 70s, may bring greater problems and a minor increase in incidences of daily stress.
With this discovery, Almeida anticipates the next round of MIDUS data collecting, which will be the first since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. This new round of data collecting will allow Almeida and his colleagues to analyse the pandemic’s influence on daily stress reactivity.
The team will also be able to analyse how people grow and change during maturity during the next cycle of data collecting.
“Growing older from 35 to 65 is very different than growing older from 65 to 95,” said Almeida. “We’ve started to see that in the data already, but this next round of data collection and analysis will give us an even greater understanding of what that looks like.”
“At the end of the next post-pandemic data collection in a couple of years, I’ll be in my early 60s, and when I started this project, I was in my late 20s,” he continued. “My own development has occurred during this study of midlife, and it has been enlightening to watch these findings play out in my own life.”
According to Almeida, we are all ageing and growing older in various ways. How we age is depending on not only the challenges we face but how we handle those challenges.
“A lot of my prior work looked at these small, daily stressors — being late to a meeting, having an argument with a partner, caring for a sick child — and found that our emotional responses to these events are predictive of later health and well-being, including chronic conditions, mental health and even mortality. With this new research, it’s encouraging to see that as we age, we begin to deal with these stressors better. On average, the experience of daily stress won’t get worse, but in fact, get better.”