Stress Reactions Predict Future Health Risk
November 4, 2012

Reaction To Stressors, Not Stress Itself, Responsible For Health Issues

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While the general public has long believed that stress can cause medical issues, researchers at Penn State University say it is the way people react to potential stress-inducing stimuli, and not the stressors themselves, that determine whether those individuals will fall ill or suffer other adverse health effects.

The Penn State researchers, led by professor of human development and family studies David Almeida, analyzed a group of individuals participating in the National Institute on Aging's MIDUS (Midlife in the United States) study.

Almeida and his colleagues conducted telephone surveys of 2,000 study participants each night for eight consecutive days, asking those subjects about the events they had experienced in the previous 24 hours.

The participants were each asked about how they used their time, what their mood was, what physical health systems they had experienced, their productivity levels, and any stressful events they might have experienced (i.e. being stuck in traffic, caring for a sick child, participating in an argument with someone, etc).

The Penn State researchers also collected saliva samples from each participant at four different times on four different days during that eight-day period. They studied those samples in order to determine the amount of the hormone cortisol, which is released in response to stress.

Almeida's team then matched the information they collected with data from the MIDUS study, including each subject's demographics, chronic health conditions, personality, and more. They found that those who became upset by the stressors they experienced in their daily life, and continued to dwell on them, were more likely to suffer from arthritis, cardiovascular issues, and other chronic health issues a decade later.

"Our research shows that how you react to what happens in your life today predicts your chronic health conditions and 10 years in the future, independent of your current health and your future stress," Almeida said. "For example, if you have a lot of work to do today and you are really grumpy because of it, then you are more likely to suffer negative health consequences 10 years from now than someone who also has a lot of work to do today, but doesn't let it bother her."

"Most social-science surveys are based on long retrospective accounts of your life in the past month or maybe the past week. By asking people to focus just on the past 24 hours, we were able to capture a particular day in someone's life. Then, by studying consecutive days, we were able to see the ebb and flow of their daily experiences," he added.

In addition to Almeida, Penn State researchers Martin Sliwinski and Jacquie Mogle, Susan Charles of the University of California, Irvine and Jennifer Piazza of California State University at Fullerton worked on the paper, which appears online in the latest issue of the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Their research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"What is interesting is how these people deal with their stress. Our research shows that people age 65 and up tend to be more reactive to stress than younger people, likely because they aren't exposed to a lot of stress at this stage in their lives, and they are out of practice in dealing with it," Almeida said.

"Younger people are better at dealing with it because they cope with it so frequently. Likewise, our research shows that people with lower cognitive abilities and education levels are more reactive to stress than people with higher cognitive abilities and education levels, likely because they have less control over the stressors in their lives," he added.

Based on their findings, he says that "reducing exposure to stressors isn't the answer" to preventing stress-related health conditions on a long-term basis. Rather, Almeida says, "we just need to figure out how to manage them better."