They’re called the Cohen Scale of Perceived Stress and they’re supposed to measure—you guessed it—how stressed we feel in our daily lives.

You’re actually supposed to take them quickly, without thinking too much about the answers, so they only take a couple of minutes.

This is crucial because a new study finds that older adults with higher levels of stress are more likely to develop dementia. An astonishing 37% probability, just in 11 years.

“Higher levels of perceived stress … were associated with 1.37 times higher odds of cognitive impairment after adjusting for sociodemographic variables, cardiovascular risk factors, and depression,” writes Ambar Kulshreshtha, a physician and professor of epidemiology at Emory University. — the authors report on a new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (The article is freely available here.)

Technically, they can only prove that the two are “related”. It is notoriously difficult to obtain conclusive evidence of causation.

This was based on a study of nearly 24,500 people over the age of 45 over 11 years, including home interviews, telephone interviews and questionnaires they filled out themselves. The in-house interviews included blood tests and physical exams, so the whole thing was in-depth.

The study was particularly remarkable for several reasons: size and ethnic diversity.

The average age was 64, and women and black Americans were oversampled: the group studied was 60% female and 42% black. A disproportionate number also live in the Southeast, where average health scores are lower than in the rest of the country.

The results show the importance of looking at the stats closely. For example, across the entire group, people with higher stress levels were more likely to be younger, female, black, have lower incomes, not have a college degree, and live in the Southeast. People with high levels of stress were more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. But the relationship between stress and dementia risk was independent of this: So although it is, for example, true that a poor person is more likely to have high stress and this increases the risk of dementia, a well-off person with high stress is more likely to develop dementia. dementia

The thing that surprised me was how low the “high pressure” level was. The researchers counted anyone who scored 5 or higher on the 4-question version, out of a maximum of 16 (with 16 equaling maximum stress). In other words, simply scoring 32% or higher on a stress scale is enough to put you at risk.

The authors say that “perceived stress is defined as the result of events or demands that exceed an individual’s purported ability to cope.”

According to the survey—reported here by Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Sheldon Cohen, who first developed the scale—the average was around 35% for those in their 20s, dropping to about 30% for those 55 and over. The survey was conducted in the 1990s, and used a ten point scale.

I confess to myself amazed at how calm everyone is.

Better not report my score, in case I want to buy life insurance. But based on my reading, the effort I put into ensuring I had enough leftovers for a long, healthy old age is almost wasted. Maybe I didn’t need to quit either.

Admittedly, these “averages” predate the advent of the internet, smartphones, “social” media, and all the other things that are supposed to make our lives — ahem — “better.”

If you think they are, ask yourself if Twitter, Facebook, and the need to check your email 16 hours a day are raising or lowering the general stress in your life.

The latest study adds to the growing evidence that high levels of stress really are bad for our health. These previous studies have linked smaller ones — here and here — to dementia. Research by Cohen has found that general stress makes us more susceptible to disease in general.

This study found that long-term work-related stress makes you more likely to develop cancer. Naturally enough stress also makes you more prone to depression.

The question is what can we do about it? Researchers refer to stress as a “modifiable” factor, because in theory we can control or influence it. Mayo Clinic lists all kinds of positive things we can do that may reduce our stress. A 20-minute walk in the park (or in nature in general) can help. Mindful meditation and chanting can also be.

(I admit I let the cheer slip).

And of course, playing with a pet can be a great stress reliever. pretty much any pet.

Meanwhile, those with an analytical mind may find the PSS scale itself useful, breaking down general “stress” into a few specific questions about our lives that we can address individually.

And if you’ve been looking for one last inspiration to ditch that smartphone and “social” media, this is it.

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