Longevity and stress

Stress is something that affects all of us, and it affects us in different ways. However, it’s how we deal with, and handle the stress that really influences its impact on our well-being. Studies have found ongoing trends in increased stress from generation to generation, and this is especially true in recent years as the pandemic moved in – stress has been at an all-time high.

So, what does this stress do to us, both physically and mentally? People who experience a consistent level of stress, say from a high-pressure job, can suffer from physical symptoms such as high blood pressure (which can lead to heart issues), headaches, digestive problems and problems with sleep and intimacy. Stress can also lead to emotional problems such as panic attacks, depression and anxiety in general. And, in the end, all of these symptoms can affect our longevity.

In a recent study by Yale, researchers examined how stress affected individuals’ “biological clocks” and they asked two questions: How much does chronic stress accelerate that biological clock, and are there ways to slow it down and extend a healthy lifespan? According to their findings, which were published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, stress makes one’s life “clock” tick faster, and prolonged stress increases the risk of heart disease, addiction, mood disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. It can influence metabolism, accelerate obesity-related disorders such as diabetes, and deplete our ability to regulate emotions and think clearly. “Even after accounting for demographic and behavioural factors such as smoking, body mass index, race and income, the researchers found that those who scored high on measures related to chronic stress exhibited accelerated aging markers and physiological changes such as increased insulin resistance.”

The good news is, the same study found that individuals can help manage the factors which cause the biological clock’s acceleration by strengthening their emotion regulation and self-control. In fact, the more psychologically resilient the person is, the higher the likelihood is that they will live a longer and healthier life.

In another international study, researchers from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare looked at lifestyle factors that could influence the life expectancy of 30-year-old men. They were able to determine that stress could reduce a subject’s lifespan by a total of 2.8 years. A similar outcome occurred with the female study subjects who had been exposed to ongoing stress factors – the women’s lifespans were reduced by a total of 2.3 years. Researchers identified the gender difference and attributed it to women having overall healthier lifestyles, which could slightly offset the effects of chronic stress.

And the long-term effects of stress on lifespan go even deeper, as scientists are now saying that it can affect our overall genetic makeup. Chronic stress is actually harming our DNA, said an article on the American Psychological Association (APA) website. Researcher Elissa Epel is studying how personality, stress processes and environment affect our DNA because, in their Stress in America survey, 42 per cent of adults in the U.S. say that their stress level has increased over the last five years. Teenagers as well are experiencing stress that even rivals adult levels. Studies have linked stress with shorter telomeres, a protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA and a chromosome component that’s been associated with cellular aging and risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres; an enzyme called telomerase can replenish it. However, chronic stress and cortisol exposure decreases your supply and, when the telomere is too diminished, the cell often dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This sets the aging process in motion, along with associated health risks, the APA explained.

Stress is sometimes unavoidable. But the ways in which you handle that stress can vary greatly and, when properly controlled, these can be extremely beneficial in extending our lives. Everything from exercise and socializing to eating well and getting good sleep can help curb the negative effects of stress. And if you find yourself feeling overwhelmingly worried, you can seek the help of a professional therapist. Don’t let stress ruin the good days which you have now and take away more time in the future – seek out effective, creative, beneficial ways to keep stress from bringing you down.

by Jennifer Cox