The Effects of Stress on Aging

Across the gender spectrum and at any age, everyone experiences some level or form of stress.  Whether as a young individual struggling to attain financial stability, career security or juggling family and work life, or as a senior faced with dwindling finances, various health issues or the struggle to maintain one’s independence, stress forms a large component of our daily lives.

What is Stress

Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from internal anxiety or demanding external factors and how the body responds to these demands.  The medical definition of stress is: “the perception of a real or imagined threat to your body or your ego.”

When one feels threatened, such as in a life threatening situation, the body reacts by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  The heart begins to beat faster, muscles tighten and blood pressure rises.  The body switches into “flight and fight” mode as a way of protecting you.  

Stress hormones provide energy and give you the ability to meet various challenges.  For example; enabling you to perform your best during a presentation at work.   But over time, repeated experiences of flight and fight stress response can cause damage and wreak havoc to your body.  Many health issues have been linked to stress overload, including heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system and speeding up the aging process which in turn can lead to various mental and emotional problems.  

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that stress ages the individual immune system cells significantly.  The study focused on telomeres, which are the caps found at the end of the twisted double strands of chromosomes.  Each time a cell divides, the telomeres become a little shorter, until they are too short to divide and the cell becomes inactive or dies.  The shortening process is associated with aging, and is one of the reasons humans do not live forever.

Researchers studied the telomeres and stress levels of 58 healthy premenopausal women.  The results indicated that on average, the immune systems cells of highly stressed women had aged by an extra 10 years.  The study didn’t explain how stress adds years to cells making up the immune system, but researchers do have a not-surprising theory that stress hormones could be shortening telomeres somehow and cutting the lifespan of cells.

Stress Management

The good news is that although you feel that stress is controlling your life, the way you respond to and manage stress, is the key factor in helping you cope and live a longer, healthier life.  Stress management will reduce harmful effects and prevent stress from spiraling out of control in the future.  The following points highlights the key to reducing stress:

  • Stress is a perception, also known as a thought or point of view.  There are objective stressors which are very real and to which we react, such as war, death of a loved one, financial troubles, dental work, etc, but you can protect yourself by understanding how your body responds to stress, recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress overload and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
  • It is very important to watch your thoughts and perceptions and when you feel a stressful idea entering your mind, stop, take a deep breath and just let go.  It is a like a muscle – it tightens with exercise and relaxes when you let go.
  • Sleep – it is essential that you get at least 8 hours of sleep a night.  Lack of sleep increases stress hormones.
  • BreathingMost of us hold our breath often or take short, anxious breaths.  It is important to take deep, slow, full breaths to relax the body and reset the stress response.  The relaxation nerve runs through the diaphragm and is activated with every deep breath.  Take five deep breaths and observe how relaxed you feel thereafter.
  • ExercisePhysical and mental health are intertwined and taking care of your body enables you to become more resilient to stress.  Physical exercise gives you the chance to focus your attention elsewhere and distracts you from your worries, giving you a break from your thoughts that feed stress and anxiety.  Yoga is also an excellent form of exercise as it combines both movement, breathing and relaxation.
  • RelationshipsSocial interaction with friends and family is an excellent way of reducing life’s stressors.  A report by the American Psychological Association highlighted that social support can help prevent stress and stress-related diseases, and is strikingly obvious in seniors.  An article published in the American Journal of Health Promotion stated that social support can slow down the flow of stress hormones in seniors and, not coincidentally, increase longevity.

We described above the effects of stress.  It is the sympathetic nervous system that mediates the stress response which is required for dealing with acute situations, but most of the time we need to use our parasympathetic nervous system which keeps us in a relaxed and healthy mode. You can read our e-book Adding Years to Your Life, By Dr Barry Dinner, which provides essential advice on staying in the parasympathetic or relaxed mode.

At the end of the day, one can compare stress on the mind and body to wear-and-tear on a mechanical device such as a car engine.  It is ultimately, the friction between the parts that causes the system or mechanism to age and ultimately fail.  It is therefore imperative to proactively take care of your body and mind by reducing stress in your life and thereby slow down the aging process.