COVID-19 is causing stress and can lead to a stress response causing mental and physical harm. The stress response happens when a person senses danger, pressure, or potential harm, either physically or mentally. The brain sends signals to the rest of the body to get ready to "fight, freeze, or flight" (run away). Muscles tighten, and stress hormones are produced, such as adrenaline, corticosteroids, and cortisol. These stress hormones cause physiological changes such as rapid breathing, rising blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased strength, better focus, and greater stamina. This reaction is entirely normal, and the body adapts and returns to a pre-stressed state. Chronic stress, remaining in a consistent stress response state, is harmful to health, especially for older adults. COVID-19 can lead to chronic, high-level stress. This kind of stress can cause more significant cognitive decline, increase in emotional disturbances, and lower levels of physical health.17, 18
Effects of stress
Stress significantly reduces the strength of the immune system. As we age, the immune system becomes impaired, and the ability to resist infection and disease declines. The aging immune system loses the ability to protect against viruses, cancer, and has a reduced wound-healing effect.19 For older adults with an already declining immune function, stress causes additional deterioration. Older adults are more susceptible to the age-related suppression of their immune system, which makes it easier to get sick and takes longer for recovery.
Higher levels of blood cortisol are associated with memory issues, visual perception (identify and locate objects in the environment), poor concentration, and trouble making decisions. Stress can influence our minds.
Stress can create a surplus of adrenaline in the body. Adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate and can cause a heart attack or a stroke. Stress can cause people to seek relief by finding comfort in unhealthy ways such as excessive drinking, using drugs or over-medicating, and overeating. These activities can cause additional damage to blood vessels and your heart.
Vision and hearing changes
Chronic stress leading to long term adrenaline production causes blood vessels to constrict, which can lead to vision changes and hearing loss.
Digestive issues and weight gain
Stress can make people "sick to their stomachs." This sick feeling comes from the central nervous system shutting down the blood flow to the digestive system, increasing contractions of digestive muscles (which can cause vomiting and diarrhea), and increasing secretions of stomach acids. The stress hormone cortisol can stay elevated during and after a stressful event. Cortisol increases hunger leading to weight gain and cravings for carbohydrates and sugary foods.
Dental issues tend to increase with age due to lower bone mass and long-term wear. Stress can contribute to dental problems when people clench their jaw or unintentionally grind their teeth.