Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” The body’s ability to respond to acute stress has been one of the reasons human beings have been able to evolve and survive. Over the long-term, however, stress can actually wreak havoc on the body and cause symptoms associated with poor aging. Read more to understand how stress affects the body and causes premature aging.
Aging and DNA
In order to understand how stress can cause changes on the molecular level that affect aging, it is first important to understand the basics of our DNA. Human cells are composed of 23 chromosomes. A chromosome contains the genes, the DNA, of each individual. When cells need to replicate, they duplicate their genetic material and divide. Sometimes that duplication can have errors. This is where telomeres come in.
Each chromosome is capped on either end by telomeres. Telomeres are the protective bookends on DNA. They protect the DNA during the duplication process. Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little bit shorter. While the telomeres get shorter, the DNA inside stays the same length. As the telomeres get shorter, cells age and die faster. Certain factors can protect telomeres, prolonging their life. Other factors cause them to shorten faster. One such factor that causes increased shortening of telomeres is stress.
Common Causes of Stress
Stress can come in many forms. Below are some of the more common causes and the effects they can have on the body.
#1 Psychosocial situations
While all people experience stress, certain individuals and groups of people face certain types of stress repeatedly. For example, people who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are more likely to experience poor health outcomes. ACEs are potentially traumatizing experiences that occur before the age of 18. Examples include violence, abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, having a family member die by or attempt suicide, how to have problems in the household such as substance abuse, mental health problems, or parental separation or incarceration. ACEs can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted diseases, more trauma, chronic diseases, and many other poor outcomes.
Traumatic stress doesn’t just occur in childhood. Repeated stressors in adulthood also have similar effects on health outcomes. For example, in the United States, poor people and people of color experience systemic stressors that limit their lifespan. For example, black men are more likely to experience accelerated aging and age-related diseases due to racism. This has been confirmed in scientific studies that have shown accelerated shortening of their telomeres in conjunction with racial discrimination.
Over time, this stress can affect their survival and long-term health. Stress causes neuroendocrine responses in the body that acutely have improved survival, but over the long-term have induced inflammation. Stress-related inflammation is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
#2 Social Isolation
Feeling isolated and lonely is actually a much more serious issue than most people realize. Isolation can mean many things. Generally, people who are isolated have few support networks, little social contact, and are often unmarried.
Loneliness and isolation are major predictors of mortality. One study in the U.S. examined 16, 849 adults. They found that social isolation caused worse survival for all genders. They also found that people who were isolated were more likely to engage in unhealthy activities, like smoking. They were also more likely to have high-risk chronic diseases, like high cholesterol and high blood pressure. In some cases, social isolation is an even greater indication of mortality risk than obesity.
Other studies have demonstrated the effect of loneliness on a molecular level. In 2014, a study done by scientists at the Vetmeduni Vienna in Austria found that loneliness affected aging down to the DNA. Specifically, they examined the telomeres in African grey parrots in captivity. They compared grey parrots that had a partner to parrots that did not. They found that the telomeres of the isolated parrots were shorter than the telomeres of the partnered parrots.
For many people, finances are a major cause of stress. One study examined the effects of financial stress on aging. In that study, they took participants ages 26-75. Participants reported how old they felt vs how old they thought they looked. They then showed photographs of the participants to observers. They found that participants who reported higher levels of financial stress were perceived as older and aesthetically aged more rapidly. While this study was subjective rather than a measurement of telomere length, it makes sense since telomeres regulate cell turnover.
Stress can severely impact people’s health outcomes as they age. The neuroendocrine system becomes engaged, causing a cascade of changes in the body. Some of these changes shorten the length of telomeres, the important end capsules on chromosomes that protect DNA. Shortened telomeres cause cell aging and death, which causes accelerated aging in human. Fortunately, there are certain ways to counteract this stress. Call us at the Anti-Aging and Wellness Clinic today to ask about how you can better manage your stress.