As age goes up, stress goes down
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Irwin Labelle is living the simple life well.
"I'm happy every day," Mr. Labelle, 84, said. "I can't remember stress in my life."
Enjoying their Thursday ritual of watching crowds at the Market Square farmers market, Mr. Labelle and his 80-year-old wife, Martha, bear out the findings of a new study by Carnegie Mellon researchers showing that stress decreases as we age.
The study, published in this month's issue of "The Journal of Applied Social Psychology," looked at three national polls of stress levels during the last quarter century. In each poll, the level of perceived stress drops for each decade respondents get older.
"As you get older, you report less stress," said Sheldon Cohen, a co-author of the study and a psychology professor at CMU. "It is the oldest people in the sample who are reporting the least stress and that's consistent across the three studies."
The polls for the study using the "perceived stress scale" developed by Mr. Cohen were conducted in 1983, 2006 and 2009. On that scale, respondents in 2006 who were younger than 25 had a mean score of 18.64. That score dropped to 15.20 for people aged 45 to 54 and fell further to 10.80 for those 65 and older.
For Mrs. Labelle, it makes sense. She still feels some stress -- over her grandchildren, for example -- but it's not the same as when she had her own kids in the house, and she felt stressed every time a child was late coming off the school bus. "It affects you differently," she said.
One possible explanation, Mr. Cohen said in the study, is that "as we grow older, we both interpret events as less stressful and develop better coping strategies." That idea fits with previously published research that found that as people age, they focus more on enjoying the positive aspects of life and dwell less on the negative aspects.
In Mr. Labelle's 84 years of experience, most stress in life comes from money troubles. In his career, he worked as a salesman, a businessman and a city firefighter, while Mrs. Labelle worked as a secretary.
Now, the Labelles live on a fixed income in a Downtown apartment.
"We don't make a lot of money, but we don't need a lot," Mr. Labelle said. "We live on a fixed income. It's not stressful."
Mr. and Mrs. Labelle come to the farmers market every Thursday, but they rarely buy anything. The pints of strawberries there are "beautiful," but they're also $5 or $6. Mrs. Labelle said she gets hers on sale at Giant Eagle for half that.
Mr. Cohen's research also tied money to stress. In a "graded relationship" similar to age, stress decreases as income increases.
In addition, in all three polls compared, women had significantly higher stress levels than men. Previous research has shown women experience (or at least perceive to experience) a higher number of stressful life events and have a harder time coping with those events than men.
The most surprising finding in the study, Mr. Cohen said, was the increase between 2006 and 2009 in the stress levels of white, college-educated, middle-aged men. That increase was more than double the increase in any other category -- a figure that Mr. Cohen attributes to the economic downturn in 2008 that raised the unemployment rate and eviscerated retirement savings accounts.
"They had the most to lose in terms of the effects on the market," Mr. Cohen said. "When we thought about it, it made a lot of sense."
The study also showed an increase in stress since 1983, but those figures can't be compared scientifically, Mr. Cohen said, because the first poll was done by phone and the latter two were done online.
First Published June 16, 2012 12:04 am