Does the Perception of Stress Increase Physical Illness in Older Adults?

According to a new study conducted by researchers from Concordia University and the University of British Columbia, older adults who have high levels of perceived stress actually engage in lower levels of physical activity which result in decreased physical health over time. The benefits of physical activity have been well documented, but these benefits are extremely evident in older adults who experience elevated stress levels. “Some of the benefits of physical activity are attributable to modulation of biological processes involved in disease (e.g., increased cardiorespiratory fitness, decreased blood pressure, more musculoskeletal strength); so evidence that psychological mechanisms, such as the perception of stress, may explain beneficial health effects of physical activity,” said the team. Additionally, they noted that high levels of stress increase symptoms of depression and anxiety and make this segment of the population more vulnerable to serious physical health conditions.

The team enlisted 157 adults from the Montreal Aging and Health Study (MAHS), all over age 60, for their research. They assessed their physical health at baseline, 2 and 4 years out. The participants were measured for stress using the Perceived Stress Scale at the same points in time. The results revealed that the individuals who reported the highest levels of stress at baseline also reported the poorest physical health four years after. Additionally, this group was also found to engage in the least amount of physical activity. The team believes these findings have significant implications for older adults. “These findings demonstrate that physical activity has the potential to ameliorate chronically high perceptions of stress and thereby produce long-term benefits on physical health,” they said. “This implies that physical activity may be especially beneficial for physical health among vulnerable older adults who perceive stress.” They added that even in people exhibiting low levels of stress, the benefits of physical activity may prevent future negative health issues if stress becomes an issue as they age.

Rueggeberg, R., Wrosch, C., & Miller, G. E. (2011, August 29). The Different Roles of Perceived Stress in the Association Between Older Adults’ Physical Activity and Physical Health. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025242

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • June


    September 8th, 2011 at 4:13 AM

    How do you know that this decline is directly attributable to the amount of stress in one’s life or the perceived amount of stress that he or she has? Do we not know that this is not just about the aging process in general?

  • melinda


    September 8th, 2011 at 12:32 PM

    we all know how much stress can affect those of us when we are young and healthy- it only seems logical that it would have an even greater physical impact on those who are already older and their health may be compromised in other ways

  • george


    September 8th, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    Note: I have some pretty unconventional view points (just ask my wife, drives her nuts) so when I see something that supports the way I think I can’t help but comment.

    Any who, yeah this article is on the money. I have always supported the opinion that perception of stress can cause illnesses in adults. In fact I think it causes obesity too, but I digress. Now that theirs a study supporting my view maybe people won’t think I’m insane! But study aside, just think about how bad stress can make you feel. The feeling in your stomach, the shaking, the fast heart beat… THAT CAN’T BE HEALTHY! Neither physically or mentally. Plus as stated in the article people with higher levels of stress exercise less. It’s a losing situation all the way around. But before I blabber on let me just say, if you are experiencing abnormal levels of stress please get help!

  • cindy


    September 8th, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    exercise is a great stress-buster for’s not only getting your mind off the stressful event but also the breathing and blood circulation that helps the cause.I have been using exercise as a stress buster for quite sometime now :)

  • caregiver


    February 11th, 2014 at 11:26 PM

    Recognizing that the stress you are experiencing can sometimes lead to depression is the first step to preventing it — and burnout. To take that step, talk about your feelings, frustrations, and fears with the palliative care team’s social worker or mental health professional. Talking helps you understand what’s going on for you and for the person in your care. It helps you come to grips with the fact that you are not in total control of the situation.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.