Perceived stress symptoms in midlife predict disability in old age: a 28-year prospective cohort study

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2013 Aug;68(8):984-91. doi: 10.1093/gerona/gls339. Epub 2013 Jan 31.


Background: Stress has damaging effects on individual's health. However, information about the long-term consequences of mental stress is scarce.

Methods: This 28-year prospective cohort study examined on the associations between midlife stress and old age disability among 2,994 Finnish municipal professionals aged 44-58 years at baseline. Self-reported stress symptoms were assessed at baseline in 1981 and 4 years later in 1985 and perceived disability in 2009. For the baseline data, principal component analysis was used for differentiation into stress symptom profiles. The regression coefficient estimates for self-care disability (activities of daily living) and instrumental activities of daily living disability were estimated using left-censored regression. The odds ratios for mobility limitation were estimated using logistic regression.

Results: Four midlife stress profiles were identified: negative reactions to work and depressiveness, perceived decrease in cognition, sleep disturbances, and somatic symptoms. We saw a clear gradient of increasing disability severity in old age for increasing intensity of midlife stress symptoms. In comparison with the participants with no stress symptoms, the extensively adjusted left-censored and logistic regression models showed that in old age, disability scores were almost 2-4 units higher and risk for mobility limitation was 2-3 times higher for those with constant stress symptoms in midlife.

Conclusions: Among occupationally active 44- to 58-year-old men and women, perceived stress symptoms in midlife correlated with disability 28 years later. Stress symptoms may be the first signs of decompensation of individual functioning relative to environmental demands, which may later manifest in disabilities.

Keywords: Disablement process; Epidemiology; Functional performance; Psychosocial stress; Public health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Disabled Persons
  • Female
  • Finland
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mobility Limitation
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*