Self-reported chronic stress is unique across lifetime periods: a test of competing structural equation models

Mikenzi Brasfield, Chuong Bui, Lawrence Patihis, Martha R. Crowther, Rebecca S. Allen, Ian McDonough

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Background and objectives: Chronic stress can have deleterious effects on physical and mental health. However, self-report measures of chronic stress typically only assess stress recently, ignoring ongoing or repeated stress throughout the lifespan. The present study tested whether retrospective judgments of stress across different lifetime periods offer unique information that cannot be ascertained by measures of recent chronic stress.

Research design and methods: A survey was given to 271 adults aged 46 to 81 using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. The questions assessed self-reported stress across multiple domains (e.g., general stress, financial stress, interpersonal stress) from well-known and validated surveys. Also, items were added to assess different lifetime periods of self-reported stress, including one’s childhood, 20s/30s, and 50s/60s. Using structural equation modeling, we tested competing models for how lifetime periods and stress domains might relate to one another.

Results: The best fitting model revealed that different domains of stress (discrimination, loneliness, personal, and general stress) were highly correlated with one another within a given lifetime period but that the different lifetime periods (childhood, 20s/30s, 50s/60s, and current) were relatively independent.

Discussion and implications: Current measures assessing the frequency or strength of “chronic stress” are misleading because they do not capture ongoing or repeated stress throughout the lifespan. Past experiences convey unique information about one’s chronic stress, offering a new perspective on the meaning of “chronic stress” from a life course perspective, consistent with previous stress accumulation models.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalThe Gerontologist
Early online date16 May 2023
Publication statusEarly online - 16 May 2023


  • aging
  • life course
  • perceived stress
  • retrospective

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