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As women transition through midlife, their stress levels decrease, study finds

As women transition through midlife, their stress levels decrease
Despite mental and physical stressors, previous research has suggested that perceived stress actually improves once people pass their late 30s or early 40s.

Most women’s perception of the stress in their lives decreases as they pass through their midlife years, a new study reports.

The study also found that menopause was not a strong factor in how much stress midlife women feel.

These findings, published recently in the journal Women’s Midlife Health, will be reassuring to many women entering — or transitioning through — their midlife years, which social scientists say begins between the ages of 35 and 40.

“The neat thing is that for most of us, our perception of stress decreases as we age through the midlife,” says Elizabeth Hedgeman, the study’s lead author and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, in a released statement. 

“Perhaps life itself is becoming less stressful, or maybe we’re finally feeling at the top of our game, or maybe things just don’t bother us the way they did,” she adds. “But whatever the root reason, we’re reporting less perceived stress as we age through the midlife and menopause.”

A time of profound change

As Hedgeman and her colleagues point out, although the much-ballyhooed midlife crisis has been largely debunked, the years between young adulthood and old age appear to be a time period ripe for stress — at least, on paper.

“For modern women 40-65 years of age, these middle years are marked by the potential for profound social and physiological changes,” they explain. “Households are changing, with children leaving and ‘boomerang’ children returning. Aging parents may require more care as their health and functioning decline. Workplace stress may increase with the attainment of seniority, additional job strain, and concomitantly increasing time demands.”

Midlife also includes, for most women, the passage through menopause, with its hot flashes, sleep disruptions and possible shifts in mood (most likely related to the disturbed sleep). 

And yet, despite all those mental and physical stressors, previous research has suggested that perceived stress — how confident people feel about being able to control and cope with life’s stressors — actually improves once people pass their late 30s or early 40s. That goes for people’s perception of the quality of their lives, as well.

How the study was done

For the current study, Hedgeman and her colleagues wanted to see how women’s perceive stressed changed as they transitioned through midlife. They used data collected annually from more than 3,000 women who were recruited into the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) in 1996. When they entered SWAN, the women were between the ages of 42 and 53. None had yet completed menopause. 

SWAN is designed to help scientists, medical professionals and women better understand how midlife experiences affect health and quality of life during aging. Among the information collected annually are a set of questions about perceived stress, such as “In the past two weeks, how often have you felt you were unable to control the important things in your life?” and “In the past two weeks, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?”

Participants rate each question on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (very often).

Hedgeman and her colleagues analyzed 13 years of SWAN data. The mean age of the women at the end of that period was 62 years, which means that half were older than 62 and half were younger.

The analysis revealed that perceived stress had decreased for most of the women over the 13 years, and that the women’s changing menopausal status did not predict the level of stress reported by the women.

The study did find that certain groups of women — particularly those with less education and greater financial hardship — consistently reported higher levels of stress than their more educated and wealthier peers. Yet even their stress declined over time.

Interestingly, after adjusting for education, income and other socioeconomic factors, race and ethnicity was only a predictor for higher levels of stress among American women with a Japanese heritage.

Limitations and implications

This study, like all studies, has several limitations. Most notably, women with the lowest level of education and the greatest financial hardship made up less than 10 percent of the study, limiting the power of the findings regarding those groups. Also one of the sites used to recruit women (in New Jersey) was unable to follow its participants for all 13 years. Given that this site included many Hispanic women and women of lower socioeconomic means, its incomplete data may have skewed the study’s overall results.

Still, the findings are intriguing — and, as already noted, supportive of some previous research on the topic. 

Hedgeman and her colleagues did not investigate reasons for the decrease in the women’s perceived stress, but they outline several possible explanations in their paper.

“Research suggests that older adults show more maturity and regulation of emotion, leading to increased feelings of optimism and fewer symptoms of psychological distress than younger adults,” they write.  

The researchers also point out that focus groups involving American women have found “that the midlife is a time of reduced childrearing responsibilities leading to role restructuring, more control over one’s time, and an increased sense of personal power and freedom.”

Or, as Hedgeman says more succinctly in the released statement: “Perhaps things just don’t bother us as much as we age.”

FMI: The study can be read in full on the website for Women’s Midlife Health.

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