Chronic Stress and Premature Aging

For years, doctors have advised their patients to avoid stress because it affects the body in myriad of unhealthy ways. Stress is linked to many health problems including heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and even diabetes.  However, what some people may not know is that chronic stress can take a toll on our appearance – contributing to premature aging and death.

Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco have deduced a connection between stress and aging and why those who have more stressful lives look older than those who don’t.  Research has now shown that those who are undergoing chronic stress not only age faster, but they also fall sick more often and even have a shorter life span.  In another study conducted by scientists a few years ago, it was seen that stress-related aging could be explained on a cellular level, which was not known before.

The Aging Process – At the Cellular Level

The commonly heard phrase “stress is wearing you down” is actually true, literally.  To understand why this holds true, you need to understand basic cellular structure, especially chromosomes.  At the ends of the chromosomes, there are cap like structures called telomeres.

Normally, telomeres get shorter as a cell divides during the natural aging process. When the telomeres cannot get any shorter, the cell also cannot divide further and it dies.  When cells die, aging starts because organs won’t function as before, muscles weaken, and wrinkles begin to appear.

Another interesting aspect about telomeres and aging is the presence of the enzyme telomerase. This enzyme is known to help in building telomeres and prevent shortening of the caps. This helps in inhibiting aging.  However, telomerase also starts declining as one ages.

Stress and Aging – The Connection

The connection with stress and aging is that those who suffer from chronic stress have shorter telomeres in comparison to others of similar age and background, but without stress-filled lives. Those coping with chronic stress also have significantly lower levels of telomerase, which further escalates the shortening of the telomeres.  It’s also interesting to note that those who suffer from chronic stress also are likely to have more free radicals, which are again responsible for reducing the length of telomeres.

Even so, the researchers headed by Dr. Elissa Epel are not sure what the connection between higher stress and shorter telomeres is.  Nevertheless, they suggest that changes in stress hormone levels could well be the culprit.  Despite all these findings, the amount of research conducted for this immensely vast topic is still insufficient.

While some scientists are open to accepting the research, some like Professor von Zglinicki advise caution regarding this matter. The mind and the body are complex and multiple factors influence how they age. It will, indeed, take much more research and scientific findings before we can understand how the mind and body are linked, and more specifically, how stress is related to aging.

Stress Levels – Controlling Premature Aging

While scientific studies have shown a clear connection between chronic stress and premature aging, many of us may not be sure what can be done to prevent premature aging due to chronic stress. Preventive measures should be taken if you want to slow down the aging process, feel healthy and stay fit, both in mind and body.  While none of us can control aging, there are things that all of us can do to age gracefully and slow down the hands of time. Here’s how:

  • If you are in a very stressful job, look for alternative career options.
  • Try yoga and/or meditation to relieve stress.
  • Take a break if things are getting too hectic.
  • Step out of the stressful environment but don’t make escape a habit.
  • Concentrate on de-stressing by doing something that appeals to you.
  • Cultivate a hobby and use it to de-stress yourself.