'Most Stressed Out' in U.S.? Middle-Aged Women Have Lowest Well-Being, Study Finds

Many suffer as they put family and work before their health and happiness.

ByABC News
July 26, 2011, 9:15 PM

July 27, 2011 — -- Debbie Watkins is "the most stressed-out person in America" -- or at least she fits the criteria for one, according to a new study about middle-aged women.

The findings released today from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index show that women ages 45 to 64 have the lowest well-being of any age group or gender.

Wondering why? Take Watkins, for example.

She wakes up with the sun, her kids still live at home, she works a full-time job and she spends her lunch breaks visiting her mother, who recently suffered a stroke. On top of that, Watkins is married and attempting to stay healthy.

"It's 'Oh, wow. I'm not spending enough time with Mom. I'm not giving her enough support,'" she told ABC News. "But then I go over and spend more time with her [and] then I'm thinking: 'Wow. My kids are needing more of my time. My husband needs more of my time or my job.'

"It's the constant feeling that you're never doing enough for any particular group that needs your time. Most definitely, I think that comes with the female territory," she said. "I want to find a corner and curl myself up and get away from everybody and everything, but that doesn't happen."

Middle-Aged Women Face 'Recipe for Metabolic Disaster'

These days, women like Watkins, caught up in this perfect storm of obligations, are less healthy than their mothers were at the same age.

"They're not making healthy choices and they don't think they can, because they would feel too guilty from taking the time away from caring for their families," said Gail Sheehy, a "Your Life" columnist for USA Today who recently wrote about midlife women.

"Women that are excessively stressed have very high cortisol levels," said Dr. Holly Thacker, director of specialized women's health at the Cleveland Clinic. "Many of them crimp on sleep to put [first] all the dominions of work and home and care giving -- and everything else that they're doing for everyone else.

"So with not enough sleep, not enough time for exercise and good nutrition and high cortisol stress levels," Thacker said, "you know it's a recipe for a metabolic disaster."

The stress could be shaving years off women's lives. Medical experts say this could be the first generation of women who don't outlive their male counterparts by five to seven years.

"Women have an edge in living longer than males at every age span," Thacker said. "Now the concern is that women may very well lose this edge. ... They may very well have a shorter lifespan than the aging relatives that they're taking care of."

Thacker said women have to take care of themselves first.

"Like the old adage, when you're flying on a plane, put your oxygen mask on first before you assist others," she said.