Earlier in November, The Scientific American reported the findings of a study published in Neurology. In the study, which examined 2,000 40-somethings’ cortisol levels and performance on tests of memory, organization, visual perception, and attention, researchers noted women in the study seemed to fare the worst with low test scores and high cortisol levels. This performance, researchers noted, was “associated with physical changes in the brain that are often seen as precursors to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.” Lovely news for women, right?
While by no means a neurologist, I have a few psychosocial hunches as to why women’s stress levels are higher and test performances are lower than their male counterparts. I look forward to the follow-up study, of course, but until then, let us explore some educated guesses as to why middle-aged women may be more stressed out than their male counterparts.
- The Sandwich Generation: Women in their 40s are more likely to be part of the “sandwich generation,” smooshed between caring for aging parents and children under the age of 18. The Centers for Disease Control states of the 44 million unpaid elder caregivers in the United States, 75 percent of those caregivers are employed, which includes even more juggling of the ever-elusive work-life balance.
- The Mental-Health Cost of ‘Invisible Work’: As Bill the Patriarchy founder and artist Patti Maciesz pointed out, “The stress of oppression and feeling less valued is a death-by-a-thousand-papercuts idea. African American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women and there are significant health issues [correlated with] the trauma of racism. How much was race a part of the study? Gender identity?” All excellent questions to consider as researchers endeavor to determine why exactly 40-something women had lower test performance and higher cortisol levels. Also, French cartoonist Emma created a wry, relatable web-comic on the effect of mental load on working mothers. The stress of mental load is a phenomenon I would love to see studied further in relationship to midlife women’s stress levels. Anytime a partner scolds, “You should’ve asked,” highlights the assumption that women are still the manager of household chores, a task we are no better suited to than men. With that said, there is, of course, a gendered invisible load for men too, as Josh Levs reported in Money magazine. However, Levs’ premise that “stress doesn’t discriminate” may be invalidated by the Neurology study.
- Persistent Pay Inequality across Gender and Race: Poverty is stressful, not just as an ideological concept, but as a scientific and physiological stressor. Women are not projected to be paid equally until 2059, and for women of color, not until 2124 for Black women and 2233 for Hispanic women. The Brookings Institute considered the “cost of American poverty” in an article written by Dr. Carol Graham, Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow and Research Director. Graham reviews how insecurity, lack of opportunity, and discrimination play major roles in perpetuating systemic poverty and, yes, stress.
- How We Measure Stress in Men May Not Be Accurate for Women: In the open-access thematic series, “Stress and Midlife Women’s Health,” Drs. Lynnette Leidy Sievert (biological anthropology), Nicole Jaff (chemical pathology), and Nancy Fugate Woods (nursing) explore within the journal Women’s Midlife Health how only recently stress in midlife women has begun to be studied. They question if the instruments used to measure stress in men are appropriate for studying women. They also highlight a host of possible stressors unique to midlife women:
“What remains to be addressed in the women’s health literature is the identification of the types of life events that women experience as stressful and their effect on reproductive health and healthy aging. For example, researchers suggest that increased complaints of mood disorders during the menopausal transition may be due not only to hormonal fluctuations, but also to psychosocial stressors that are common at midlife, including employment challenges, aging parents, adult children with adult problems, changing body image, loss of fertility and its implications, and relationship and sexual difficulties.”
While stress should not be a competition, there is much to learn about how middle-aged women experience stress, how we measure this age group’s stress more accurately, and what health repercussions stress poses for midlife women.