Stress And Aging
Gerontologists-those studying the aging process that most of us will age gracefully and with a fair degree of success. We may be so lucky as to be surrounded by our children and grandchildren whose health and vitality will give us a a sense of immortality. Nevertheless, there are so many distrous possibilities-wracking pain, dementia and a loss of control so severe that we cannot recognize our loved ones, muscles that do not respond to our will, ignored by our children and, worse, ill-treated by them, forced hospitalization and, worst of all, that aching sense that we are a burden to one and all. With such diverse possibilities, it is logical that many scientists are studying the aging process and how to avoid some of the worst outcomes.
One of the interesting things to note is that many studies of the aging process have to be carried out on laboratory animals with short life span or on primates in the wild. The difficulty in studying old people is that it is not often clear whether you are studying aging or the effects of some other disease that afflicts the person. Moreover, after a lifetime, many older people are on multiple medications (with their associated side-effects) and that increases the complexity of the studies. Laboratory animals with short life spans provide better models for study. Unfortunately, the study of aging in say, flies or mice, cannot reveal to us interesting results in terms of human aging (hard to study the psychological or emotional aspects of flies!). The best subjects are the primates (our close relatives from the evolutionary point of view). An old animal in the wild is supremely healthy-were it not, it would have been eaten a long time back. The studies on various of the aging process in primates reveal a lot of interesting aspects and we will take a look at some of them in the subsequent sections.
From an evolutionary perspective, the problems with really aged,organisms are relatively recent. Even today, the majority of the world population has a life span that does not leave many people in the very aged categories. The problems of aging appear in the affluent Western nations and the pockets of people who are categorized as upper income in other countries. A long life is still a luxury and not a basic fact of human life. No wonder that one of the most common forms of blessing' is 'Live to be a centenarian!
The inability of older individuals to deal effectively with stress fits in with our intuition and observation of aged persons as vulnerable and fragile. To put it in perspective, almost all the systems of the body of older people work as they do for young people. But bring in a stressor and the aged organism is likely to fail.
Scientists measured the performance of different individuals in taking tests. The results are the same in the absence of stress. If the same tests are administered under stressful conditions (in noisy surroundings, under severe time pressure, etc.), the performance of old and young persons declines. The thing to note is that the performance drops to a greater extent in the older person. The reason for this poor performance seems to be the lack of sufficient stress response. All the hormonal systems of the stress response have problems and the net result is that the older individuals cope poorly with stress. In some cases, there is enough hormonal secretion but the various cells are not responding to that signal.
The stress response in the older individual usually continues even after the stressor has finished. It takes longer for the body to return to normal after the stressful period. This has been observed in many animal studies-stress young and old individuals and they may have roughly the same stress response. In the case of the older individual, it takes longer for the system to return to normal. It should be clear that secreting stress hormones in the absence of a stressor is a generally bad idea and can lead to many of the problems that we have discussed so far.
Older individuals have higher levels of stress-response hormones even in their normal resting state. The levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine are higher in older individuals in their resting states. Do older individuals pay the price for having their stress response turned on even during their rest time? The answer is yes. For example, the higher blood pressure seen in many older people can be linked to the higher levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine.
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