By learning how to de-stress your life, you can avoid stress-associated health problems and live longer. By preventing the harmful effects of stress, you can also avoid stress-associated faster aging and look younger.
Studies have shown that chronic stress can increase a person’s risk for numerous health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, memory impairment, decreased immunity and worsening of other diseases. Stress can increase risk for a stroke and heart attack as well as change the outcome of cancer and other illnesses.
Stress has also been associated with faster aging. Although it’s not clear how stress causes faster aging, important clues to the stress-aging connection has been provided by studies on telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes.
Studies have shown that psychological stress leads to shorter telomeres. Telomere shortening is a measure of cellular aging and health. Shortened telomeres have been linked to many age-related illnesses, including heart disease and certain cancers.
The findings from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) research studies led by Elissa Epel, Aoife O’Donovan and Thomas Neylan as well as Eli Puterman showed that perception of stress — not necessarily actual stress — can influence the harmful effects of stress. The studies also showed that exercise may prevent the damaging effects of chronic stress on health. Details from these studies are shown below.
They found striking individual differences in the stress-telomere connection. An increase in perceived stress was associated with an increase in the odds of having short telomeres. In other words, individuals who were more stressed had shorter telomeres compared with those who were able to cope adequately with chronic stress and perceived less stress under similar conditions.
A 2004 study by UCSF scientists, Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel, showed that psychological stress may affect the length of telomeres in immune system cells. They found that mothers of chronically sick children under psychological stress had shorter telomeres in white blood cells of the immune system; their telomeres were compared to those of mothers of healthy children.
These white blood cells defend the body against infectious agents and cell damage. So, faster aging and dying of the body’s defender of infection and cell damage can lead to serious health issues.
This was the first evidence that telomere shortening can potentially mediate the harmful effects of stress on aging and health.
When telomere shortening was compared between the most stressed and the least stressed individuals, it was estimated that the effect of stress led to approximately 9-17 years of accelerated cellular aging.
A study led by Elissa Epel showed that post-menaupausal women who were primary caregivers of a family member with dementia had telomere shortening associated with increased perceived stress; this was only seen in non-exercising women. Among exercising women, perceived stress was not associated with telomere length.
Earlier analysis of these women also showed that pessimism was associated with telomere shortening as well as high levels of pro-inflammatory protein usually observed in disease states and aging.
Another study led by Aoife O’Donovan and Thomas Neylan focused on young to middle-aged adults with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They were compared with age-matched and sex-matched individuals without PTSD. The results showed an association with telomere shortening and PTSD. In adults with PTSD, they found that exposure to childhood trauma at age 14 or younger was also associated with telomere shortening. Childhood trauma accounted for the link between PTSD and telomere shortening.
A study led by Eli Puterman analyzed healthy, non-smoking women between the ages of 50 to 65 years of varying activity levels. Their findings showed that non-exercising women with histories of childhood abuse had shorter telomeres compared with those with no history of childhood abuse. Among women who exercised regularly, there was no link between childhood abuse and telomere length.
Their findings suggest that traumatic life events and chronic stress are associated with shortening of telomeres in immune system cells. The results also showed that exercise can prevent the harmful effects of stress on health and telomere shortening.
What does this mean?
Taken together, the findings showed that increased perception of stress can increase its harmful health effects. Individuals who had effective ways of coping with stress were able to decrease its harmful effects. More importantly, people who exercised regularly were able to prevent the damaging effects of chronic stress on health.
Although stress can not be avoided, one can make lifestyle choices which can decrease or even prevent its harmful health effects.
By using effective coping strategies, perception of stress can be decreased and harmful stress-associated health effects can also be decreased. By exercising regularly, one can prevent the harmful effects of stress. Although it still needs to be studied, it is likely that other stress relieving techniques can lead to prevention of harmful stress effects just like exercise.
Happy and positive people were found to have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. In contrast to pessimism, which was associated with telomere shortening, optimism may lower response to stress. Happiness may have powerful health benefits due to its stress-reducing effects.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are many ways to exercise and relieve stress; for example, taking walks in the park or beach as well as hiking, running and working out at the gym.
Stress can accelerate aging and lead to stress-related illnesses that can shorten your life. By learning how to de-stress and relieve stress, you can prevent the harmful effects of stress, look younger and live longer.