Johns Hopkins Gazette | March 2, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 2, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 24
Do Environmental Stress, Money Woes Hurt Older Women's Health?

Today's roller-coaster economy has led countless older adults to worry about making ends meet. Very likely, that financial stress is affecting their health and even shortening their lives, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

Sarah L. Szanton, assistant professor in Nursing Systems and Outcomes, and Jerilyn K. Allen, professor in Acute and Chronic Care and associate dean for research, report in the November 2008 Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences that, without regard to race, age, education, absolute income, insurance status and illness, older women expressing greater levels of financial stress are 60 percent more likely to die within five years than their less financially stressed counterparts.

The researchers' longitudinal analysis of 728 women between 70 and 79 years of age also suggests that a woman's perception of financial strain may be a better predictor of mortality than actual income, particularly among African-American women. "It seems clear that money worries can be a significant social determinant of ill health and even death in later life," Szanton said. "If we can help address the sources of the financial strain for older adults, such as the monthly costs of medication and health care, we may be able to help reduce the toll economics takes on life and health."

Financial stress isn't the only cause of stress in older women. A host of social, psychological and environmental stressors affect mind and body daily, the researchers say. A growing body of research suggests that how the body adjusts to those stresses, and the cumulative effect of a lifetime of those adjustments, can be measured in increased disability and illness in later life, a concept called an allostatic load.

Working with the population from the same long-term study of women's health and aging, Szanton, Allen and their colleagues report in the January 2009 Biological Research for Nursing that this lifetime of work by hormones and the immune system to "reset" the body to chemical balance in the face of stressful situations may contribute specifically to late-life frailty in older women. Critically, the researchers point out that, though not causal in nature, the association between the allostatic load's lifetime of stressors and late-life frailty is independent of chronic disease, socioeconomic status, race education or other factors.


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