During stressful times it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I feel like I’ve aged ten years.”
Well, it turns out there’s something to that statement. Scientists have now proven that it’s not all in your head.
The research shows that stress does make life’s clock tick faster! In past studies, prolonged stress has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and more.1 Now a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that stress can add years to the age of individual immune system cells, and shave years off your life.2
Researchers have developed ways to measure biological age by tracking chemical changes in DNA. These changes occur naturally as people age and they can also occur during different seasons of life.
Researchers now believe these “epigenetic clocks” are better predictors of lifespan and health than chronological age.
GrimAge and Stress
One of the most successful epigenetic clock models is aptly named GrimAge, and it can predict the impact of stress in folks with specific age-related health conditions. But when it comes to a healthy population, this model falls short.3
Recently a Yale study investigated whether or not the GrimAge model could be used to measure the impact of stress on biological aging in healthy adults aged 18 to 50 years old.4
Lead author Dr. Zachary Harvanek says epigenetic aging is the best model researchers have for accelerated aging in relatively young people. However, he adds a caveat.
“We don’t have great ways to tell biological age from chronological age in your average 30 to 40-year-old,” he says. “When people get older, we can see their health start to decline, and they start to have changes in terms of their mobility and ultimately, some people die earlier than others.”
Speeding up the Clock
The Yale research team recruited 444 people, ages 19 to 50, who provided blood samples used to spot age-related chemical changes as detailed in the GrimAge model, as well as other age health markers.
Next, the group answered questions regarding perceived stress levels and psychological resilience. The researchers also gathered background information on participants’ drinking and smoking habits, racial identity, relationship status, income, and education level.
What did researchers discover?
It turns out that those who scored high on chronic stress measures exhibited accelerated aging markers, such as increased insulin resistance.
But stress doesn’t mess with everyone the same way.
Those who received top marks for emotional regulation and self-control were better able to sidestep the effects of stress on aging and insulin resistance.
The take-home message here? Stress can make us age faster. However, it’s not a foregone conclusion.
Dr. Harvanek says the more psychologically resilient the participant, the higher the likelihood of living a longer, healthier life. Co-author Rajita Sinha boils down the findings in layman’s terms.
“We all like to feel like we have some agency over our fate,” the Yale professor notes, “So it is a cool thing to reinforce in people’s minds that we should make an investment in our psychological health.”
Now for the good news…
Reducing Stress Makes a Big Difference
Simply put, it’s never too late to learn to manage and reduce stress and increase your chances of living a long, healthy life.
Here are some proven stress-busters you can try:
- Get social: Make an effort to nurture relationships with friends and family and you can help reduce stress in your life. According to the American Psychological Association, social support can help prevent stress and stress-related diseases.5
- Exercise regularly: Physical activity can not only keep you strong and independent, but it can also help block the effects of aging on cortisol levels, a stress hormone that can damage your health.6
- Try meditation: According to the Mayo Clinic, meditation can be as formal or informal as you like. Sure, an hour a day would be great, but you only need a few minutes of quality time for meditation to make a difference in your stress level. Simply focusing on your breathing for a few minutes can be beneficial. Or, what about a walking meditation? Just remember to turn off all your distracting digital gadgets first. Instead, concentrate on your legs and feet, repeating action words in your mind, such as “lifting” and “moving” as you take each step.7
These stress reduction techniques are just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous other ways to reduce stress in your life. As we embark on a new year, make it a point to choose some stress-busting techniques to help you manage your stress levels and live a longer, healthier life.
- Epel, E.S. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(49): 17312-17315.
- Traustadottir, T. et al. The HPA axis response to stress in women: effects of aging and fitness. Psychoneuroendocrinology 30(4): 392-402.