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Stress Ages & Kills People

Diet, Exercise and Self-Control Help

Woman sitting at her desk with arm extended to forehead with head down.

By John Salak —

Just in case there was doubt, stress makes people age faster and increases their risk of encountering all sorts of deadly diseases and health issues.

The proof doesn’t come from somebody’s grandmother or one of Ben Franklin’s homespun maxims but in various research released in the last six months.

The most recent report comes from the University of Southern California, which determined that stress from traumatic events, job strain, everyday stressors and even discrimination accelerate the aging of the immune system. It exposes those under stress to a greater risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and illness from infections such as COVID-19.

USC researchers claim their work could help explain disparities in age-related health, including the unequal toll of the pandemic.

“As the world’s population of older adults increases, understanding disparities in age-related health is essential. Age-related changes in the immune system play a critical role in declining health,” explained Eric Klopack, the study’s lead author. “This study helps clarify mechanisms involved in accelerated immune aging.”

All people experience deteriorating immune systems as they age caused by too many worn-out white blood cells circulating through the body and too few fresh healthy ones replacing them. It naturally leads to health risks and reduced efficacy of vaccines.

USC looked to dig further into why there are such drastic health differences in same-age adults and whether stress played a significant factor. The researchers relied on data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study that analyzed various forms of stress on almost 6,000 individuals over 50.

Blood samples examined from the participants for the relative strength of immune systems.

Not surprisingly, the USC research team found that people with higher stress scores had older-seeming immune profiles. The California-based researchers note that while some sources of stress may be impossible to control, there may be ways to lessen their harmful effects through workarounds, including improved diets and more exercise.

“In this study, after statistically controlling for poor diet and low exercise, the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging wasn’t as strong,” added Klopack. “What this means is people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging.”

East Coast researchers out of Yale University also supported the negative impact of stress when they reported in December 2021 that chronic stress speeds an individual’s biological clock, potentially hastening their demise. Fortunately, they also report that people can slow down the harmful impact of stress by regulating their emotions and strengthening their self-control.

The Yale team applied “epigenetic clocks” to track chemical changes in DNA to determine how fast an individual’s age. Many maintain these “clocks” more accurately predict lifespan and health than chronological age.

The researchers used questionnaires and this tracking method on 444 people 19 to 50 years old to determine how fast they were aging and how much stress they endured.

In line with the results of USC, the Yale team found that those experiencing an elevated level of chronic stress exhibited accelerated aging markers and physiological changes such as increased insulin resistance.

Admittedly, the degree of impact was not consistent. Those individuals, for example, who scored high on two psychological resilience measures—emotion regulation and self-control—showed stress had less harmful impacts on their aging and insulin resistance.

“These results support the popular notion that stress makes us age faster,” noted the study’s co-leader Zachary Harvanek of Yale’s Department of Psychiatry. “But they also suggest a promising way to possibly minimize these adverse consequences of stress through strengthening emotion regulation and self-control.”

The Connecticut researchers found that psychologically resilient individuals have a better chance of living longer, healthier lives.

“We all like to feel like we have some agency over our fate,” explained Rajita Sinha, the study’s co-leader and Yale’s Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry. “So, it is a cool thing to reinforce in people’s minds that we should invest in our psychological health.”

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