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Health and Stress: the Midlife Connection

We think it’s money that makes us crazy; turns out health is an even bigger concern


by Sarah Mahoney

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A recent study about stress in America turns up some counterintuitive results for those of us in midlife. Not only are people in their forties and fifties more stressed than other age groups, but it’s health concerns, not money, that give us the most trouble. 

“The big surprise for us was that when we asked people who said they had significant stress what the biggest issue was in the past year, more of them named health problems than financial issues,” says Robert J. Blendon, ScD, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health, which conducted the poll in partnership with NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Those stressors intensify in the forties and fifties, which he says is “likely due to the fact that it’s at midlife when chronic health problems begin to emerge, either in individuals or their spouses.”

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Coping with chronic illness and disability are among life’s biggest stressors, as are a very low income, working in a dangerous profession, being a single parent, and raising teens.

Overall, about half—49%—of the people surveyed reported a major stressful event or experience in the past year, and 43% of them said it related to health. But among those in their forties, 48% cited a health issue, as did 50 percent of those in their fifties. (Additionally, 36% of forty-somethings have felt overwhelmed by a family member’s health, as well as 47 percent of those in their fifties.) 

The poll, based on responses from 2,500 adults, shines a bright light on just how stressed many people feel. The good news, Blendon says, is that just as people know that health issues are a stressor, they are also keenly aware that any stress, no matter what its source, affects their well-being. “We found it incredibly impressive that people are so able to pinpoint the ways stress impacts their health,” whether it’s trouble sleeping, headaches, or muscle pain. “These short-term health reactions are precursors to long-term illnesses, and people are aware of that.” And while one in four of the overall sample reported that stress affected their health, among people in their forties and fifties, the number rose to one in three. 

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Among the people polled, not everyone is embracing proven ways to mitigate stress (are you?). Less than half exercise regularly or got adequate sleep, though 94% do spend time outdoors, 93% pursue hobbies, and 71% make an effort to wrangle tension by being with friends and family. And 57% say they regularly pray or meditate, says John M. Benson, research scientist and managing director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program.

Finally, the study uncovered a group we’ll call the lucky few. “About one in seven people report that they have some characteristic that repels stress. It’s not that they don’t have some of the same stressors that others do. It’s like they have some kind of fluoride shell around them,” says Benson.  

Photo Credit: Jan Stromme/Getty