Chronic Stress and Aging

As your bones creak, wrinkles deepen, or even worse, diseases set in, do you find that you’re looking for ways to slow down aging? We have no control over many factors, but one study has shown that there is a link between chronic stress and aging. Long term emotional strain such as seniors taking care of their elderly parents, can take its toll on health and aging.

The first study done at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) led by Elissa Epel, Ph.D. was conducted on a group of healthy mothers caring for chronically ill children. It showed that telomeres shorten in those experiencing psychological stress – i.e., they age the cells and hasten the body’s deterioration allowing the increased risk of diseases. Telomeres are caps at the end of chromosomes (molecules that carry genes) like plastic caps at the end of shoe laces to prevent fraying. When a cell divides, telomeres get shorter. In the natural aging process, the telomeres eventually get so short that cells can no longer divide, and they die producing all of the undesirable effects of aging. Telomerase is an enzyme which helps rebuild telomeres; telomerase levels also decline with age. Over time, however, telomeres do get shorter.

A key factor, however, is perception. The greater the perceived stress, the shorter the telomeres. In the above study, those with the highest perceived stress had telomeres equivalent to someone 10 years older.

In another study led by Edward Nelson, MD of the University of California at Irvine, their research suggests that stress management can stop telomeres from shortening and promote repair as well. The Hayflick countdown was being reset. (Hayflick discovered that after 50-70 cell divisions, a chromosome can grow no shorter and the cell it is in can divide no more). This study involved telephone counseling for women who had been treated for cervical cancer. The counseling worked mentally, physically, and improved their immune system.

In still another study, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D. of UCSF (who shared the Nobel prize for the discovery of the telomerase enzyme that repairs telomeres), showed that exercise has a similar effect to counseling on the telomeres of the stressed.

The bottom line is the only difference among the subjects in all of these studies is attitude. So the good news is you can do something about chronic stress and aging.

Related Resources:

Stress may increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease

Stress and Cellular Aging
Dr. Elissa Epel, UCSF

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Stress in Middle Age Could Lead to Dementia

Recently, Medical News Today reported that stress in middle age could lead to late life dementia. In this study from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, almost 1,500 women were followed for 35 years and this is the first research in Sweden to indicate a link between stress and dementia. Stress has numerous definitions, but in this study, stress was defined as a sense of irritation, tension, nervousness, anxiety, fear, or sleeping problems lasting a month or more due to work, health, family or other problems.

Stress can be good or bad and the way you respond to a situation could also be a form of stress. We are constantly making choices and we can choose to stress ourselves or we can choose not to. For example, you can choose to get angry over something like catching all the red lights on the way to work when you’re already late or you can choose to ignore it or embrace and acknowledge it and move on. Many people like to blame others for their stresses, but only you can make that choice to be angry. I don’t know about you, but I know it’s not worth being angry. Life’s too short.

One of the things we know about dementia is that keeping your immune system strong is extremely important. Current Alzheimer’s disease research is targeting the immune system. What happens when you’re stressed?

  • Blood pressure rises
  • Breathing becomes more rapid
  • Digestive system slows down
  • Heart rate (pulse) rises
  • Immune system goes down
  • Muscles become tense

Over time, diseases may develop — diabetes, depression, obesity, tooth & gum disease, cancer, ulcers, etc. It’s been estimated that 90% of visits to doctors are stress-related! There are many Web sites devoted to stress and stress management. Click here or here for some ideas.

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