How Is Stress Affecting Your RealAge?

Woman worrying about finances on floor of living room

Stress is a major factor when it comes to aging people prematurely. But “stress” means different things to different people. Also, people tend to be more productive when they have a little stress compared with when they have none. So, how can you tell if stress is bad for you?

For the RealAge Test, we use medical literature to help answer the question. We found several studies looking at the different kinds of stress people experience, but also how they deal with stress – both impact what stress does to your body.

The most easily defined issue of stress is how much you perceive. What is very stressful to one person is just normal living to another, so it makes sense that how you see your own stress is important. In the RealAge Test, we ask how much home and work stress you have – none, some periods, several periods, or permanent stress. It’s no surprise that those people who answer that they have permanent stress show a big negative impact on their health. However, most people say that they have some periods of stress – and do just as well as those who say they never have stress.

We also ask about financial stress. We were surprised to find that, overall, this had much less impact on health than perceived home and work stress, but it can be a big factor for some people. In fact, financial stress can lead to overall higher levels of home/work stress.

Next, we ask about serious life events: Marital separation or divorce, loss of employment, serious illness or death of a family member, major violence. In the first year after an event like this, risk of heart disease is much higher, and if someone has experienced two or more of these life events, the risk is higher still. Depression has heart disease risks as well. All of these can be experienced by the body as stress, whether you realize it or not.

We also ask questions about how much control people feel they have over their lives, and here’s some good news: People who feel that they are in control of their lives and who haven’t given up trying to make changes are significantly less likely to have health problems because of stress. Interestingly, the effect is even stronger for women than it is for men.

To some extent, you can’t control stress, and to some extent you, can’t change your personality type in terms of how much control you feel over your life. So, what can you do to reduce the negative effects of stress?

The answer: You can have strong interpersonal relationships.

Study after study shows that people with strong relationships deal better with stress, reduce their risk of heart disease, of cancer, of accidents, of all causes of death. The people you live with are generally your most powerful social relations, and the more, the better – at least as far as making your RealAge younger goes. Even living with your in-laws makes your RealAge younger. (Yes, really! Somebody studied that very question.)

But other social interactions count, too. Group activities, especially regular religious services, have a big impact, but so do clubs, craft groups, and other social groups. Professional groups didn’t have that effect. But close friends do, at least if you talk to them or see them regularly. Helping other people was one of the biggest predictors of people doing well and living longer. And having somebody rely on you for help – with things like shopping, cooking, helping around the house, childcare – was also a big factor making people healthier.

I frequently get asked about online friends and relationships. Here, we don’t have the benefit of published studies so I can only give my opinion. Some people have very meaningful relationships with online friends. I don’t mean sending your sister a picture of a cat doing something cute – I mean people who you only interact with on Facebook or other social media. These friends can be a source of real help and comfort. However, because of the semi-anonymous nature of these relationships, they more often are shallow and don’t lead to a lasting emotional bond. Deciding whether these kinds of friendships are helpful or harmful isn’t always easy, but figuring out if these relationships are helping or hindering your life should is necessary.

Finally, people ask about their relationship with their pets. Initial studies showed pet ownership had a big impact on RealAge, but subsequent studies put enough doubt on it that we took it out of the test. However, I know for a fact that there are some people whose relationships with their animals are a critical part of their social interaction – and a big stress reliever.

Read my previous blog to learn more about all that went into building the RealAge Test. Look out next week for my next blog, where I’ll continue to discuss the factors involved in the RealAge Test to help people feel younger and live longer. Take the test, if you haven’t already.  Check it out at RealAge.com.