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Daily Stress Processes as Contributors to and Targets for Promoting Cognitive Health in Later Life

Stawski, Robert S., PhD; Cerino, Eric S., MS; Witzel, Dakota D., BS; MacDonald, Stuart W.S., PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000643

Objective The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that daily stress processes, including exposure and emotional reactivity to daily stressors, are associated with response time inconsistency (RTI), an indicator of processing efficiency and cognitive health. Furthermore, we considered daily stresscognitive health associations at the level of individual differences and within-persons over time.

Methods Participants were 111 older adults (mean = 80 years, range = 66–95 years) enrolled in a measurement burst study where assessments of response time–based cognitive performance, stressful experiences, and affect were administered on each of 6 days for a 2-week period. This protocol was repeated every 6 months for 2.5 years. Multilevel modeling was used to examine frequency of stressor exposure, nonstressor affect, and affect reactivity to daily stressors as individual difference and time-varying predictors of RTI.

Results Between-persons, higher levels of nonstressor negative affect (b = 0.41, 95% confidence interval [CI] = −0.01 to 0.83, p = .055) and negative affect reactivity (b = 0.80, 95% CI = 0.18 to 1.42, p = .012) were associated with greater RTI. Within-persons over time, higher levels of negative affect (b = 0.20, 95% CI = 0.06 to 0.34, p = .006) and negative affect reactivity (b = 0.13, 95% CI = 0.02 to 0.24, p = .018) were associated with increased RTI among the oldest portion of the sample, whereas higher levels of positive affect (b = −0.11, 95% CI = −0.21 to −0.02, p = .019) were associated with reduced RTI.

Conclusions Negative affect reactions to daily stressors are associated with compromised RTI both between and within-persons. Findings suggest that emotional reactions to daily stressors contribute to compromise older adults' cognitive health, whereas increased positive affect may be beneficial.

From the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences (Stawski, Cerino, Witzel), Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon; and Department of Psychology (MacDonald), University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Address correspondence to Robert S. Stawski, PhD, School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, College of Public Health and Human Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, 97331-6406. E-mail:

Received for publication December 13, 2017; revision received July 30, 2018.

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