Stress: How you react affects ageing


If you're the sort of person that stresses a lot, you could be shortening your own lifespan.

How you respond to stress can speed or slow ageing. New research suggests that ageing per se may be more related to reactions to stress rather than to a person's chronological age.

Also, slowing the aging process is a real possibility if stress can be moderated along with adopting an active, healthy lifestyle.

A review on how stress hormones affect the brain by psychologist Bruce McEwen of the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University, has identified strong evidence that biological and behavioural stress responses can have a positive or negative affect on brain cells.

That is, acute (short-term) stress appears to have a positive effect such as enhanced immune function and improved memory. However, chronic stress has the opposite effect, it can lead to disorders like depression, diabetes, cognitive impairment and even gains in body fat. And it all comes down to telomeric activity.

Telo what?

People that place themselves under constant (chronic) stress are more likely to suffer from diseases. These people are more likely to have decreased telomerase activity.

Telomeres are enzymes that regulate how many times an individual cell can divide. Telomeric sequences shorten each time the DNA replicates, which is a process that happens prior to cells dividing. When at least some of the telomeres reach a critically short length, the cell stops dividing and ages (senesces) which may cause or contribute to some age-related diseases.

The brain is more involved in a person's stress response than previously thought. The brain interprets what is threatening, or stressful (whether it be public speaking or perceptions of social status) and then regulates the behavioral and physiological responses through the autonomic, immune and neuroendocrine systems. If the brain is under too much stress for too long we can see structural and functional remodeling changes that affect how it functions.

The good news

These effects on the brain and cells are able to be modulated in a positive way by lifestyle changes. Exercise – vigorous and lower intensity activities that promote relaxation are equally important. Avoiding recreational and socially acceptable drugs such as alcohol, Better nutrition and strong social support are all evidence-based strategies that improve the chemical and physiological responses to stress.

Remember, stress is a part of life, but according to science it’s clear that how you react and cope with stress ultimately determines your health and longevity.

The Research

McEwen BS. In pursuit of resilience: stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):56-64.

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