It’s not surprising that mentally feeling better about oneself can translate to enhanced physical wellbeing, but new research from Concordia University confirms that the connection between confidence and chronic health problems is especially strong in the elderly.
“Improving self-esteem provides real health benefits in seniors,” says doctoral candidate, Sarah Liu, in a University press release. Liu helped conduct a study that measured and compared self-esteem, stress, cortisol levels and depression symptoms in 147 adults, age 60 and over, for a period of four years.
By asking questions such as whether an aging adult felt worthless, then factoring in other potentially influential elements (e.g., marital status, economic situation), Liu and her colleagues found that lower self-esteem led to increased cortisol levels. This led researchers to conclude that high self-esteem could possibly provide elders with a barrier against the negative health effects of high amounts of cortisol.
The good and bad effects of cortisol
The purpose of cortisol, a hormone naturally released when a person is stressed, is to help the body use up stored energy reserves, by increasing metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates. The process primes the body and mind for survival via the fight or flight response. Cortisol secretion is a normal response to physical and psychological stress, but when too much of the chemical remains in a person’s blood stream for too long, it can have dangerous health consequences.
Excess cortisol can be deleterious to an individual’s health because it raises blood sugar levels, constrains bone growth and immune system functioning, and can inhibit memory formation and recall.
Strategies for boosting a senior‘s self-esteem
The link between confidence and cortisol was especially robust in those seniors who had experienced depression or high levels of stress in the past. “Because self-esteem is associated with psychological wellbeing and physical health, raising self-esteem would be an ideal way to help prevent health problems later in life,” says Liu.
The problem with this theory? Past research indicates that, after a lifetime peak that occurs somewhere around age 60, the typical senior experiences a precipitous self-esteem drop—likely due to major life changes such as becoming an empty-nester, retirement and experiencing the deaths of close friends and family members.
Still, there are a few ways aging adults can cultivate healthier levels of self-esteem:
Seek out social connection: Regardless of age, individuals who have supportive, loving relationships with friends and family consistently report higher self-esteem and overall happiness.
Promote feelings of independence: One possible cause for self-esteem dips in aging adults is the loss of independence due to physical and cognitive decline. This is played out in the conflicts created by conversations of whether an elderly loved one should still be driving, or if they can still safely live on their own.
Cope with life changes by finding support: Human beings are social creatures by nature, and we connect with each other by telling stories and sharing experiences. Communities and groups aimed at supporting members through various life transitions—from becoming an empty-nester to dealing with a loved one’s death—are good resources for handling these events in a healthy way.
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