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stress and the signs of aging

Stress and the Signs of Aging

Posted Mar 06, 2019

While stress certainly makes your patients’ lives more difficult, research shows that chronic stress can make their lifespan shorter as well. Inside all of us are chromosomes made up of packages of genetic DNA, and recent studies have a lot to say about how stress can affect a specific part of those chromosomes and how it can eventually affect longevity.

Telomeres are the caps at the end of each chromosome and they are responsible for protecting genetic data as well as making it possible for cells to replicate without damaging the chromosomal information. Each time a cell divides, the telomere gets shorter, causing the cell to age. When the telomeres get too short, the cell dies. (1)

This shortening process is associated with cancer, higher risk of death from multiple causes, and biological aging. Expedited shortening of telomeres has been linked to stressful childhood and adult life experiences. These experiences can include stressful situations such as social isolation, untreated depression, long-term unemployment, or untreated anxiety.

Combined with the suppression of cellular growth and repair that occurs during the stress response, this has a cumulative adverse effect on tissue health. It’s not surprising therefore that stressful lifestyles can prematurely age skin.

A 2012 study also showed a connection between shorter telomere lengths and high levels of phobic anxiety. Analyzed blood samples revealed the difference in telomere length in women ages 42 to 69 years old, based on self-reported levels of phobic symptoms.

The women with high phobic symptoms had a telomere length that had prematurely aged six years over the women with lower levels of phobic stress (2). Studies also looking at maternal health showed that a mother’s prenatal anxiety was reflected in the telomere length of her child, possibly causing higher risk to disease and other health risks before the baby is even born (2).

Another factor in premature and poor aging is how acute stress is known to negatively affect neuroendocrine function. According to the cybernetic theory of stress, factors such as decline in independence, health, and cognitive and functional abilities cause a negatively perceived discrepancy between a person’s perceived and sought-after states important for their functioning. This stress affects neuroendocrine function through the HPA axis, the body’s central stress response system. (5)

When this feedback loop is stimulated, it results in the secretion of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, which activate an elevated sense of alertness. While the HPA response is a standard function of mammals, sustained elevated levels of glucocorticoids can present a critical health risk including hypertension and suppression of anabolic processes. Impaired hippocampal and medial temporal lobe function are implicated in stress-related conditions such as late-life depression and anxiety.

Stress-related inflammation has been linked to anxiety, cognitive decline, late-life depression, and Alzheimer’s. Chronic inflammatory processes are also implicated in several health outcomes associated with aging, such as insulin resistance, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. (4)

Research has shown that a proinflammatory factor known as IL-6 has even been linked with osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Consistent with this research, inflammatory mediators are likely indications of mortality independent of other known risk factors and comorbidity in elderly individuals. (3)

If your patients have led a life full of stress up to this point, all is not lost. A recent study in The Lancet Oncology has shown us that it’s scientifically possible to reverse the effects of aging at a cellular level just through healthy lifestyle changes.

Another study performed by Dean Ornish, M.D. looked at men who had been diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer, and he sought to repair damage done to their telomere’s length. Dr. Ornish suggested the men change to a diet high in plant food, fit in 30 minutes of exercise a day for six days a week, and practice yoga or meditation.

At the end of the three-month study, the men had increased the length of their telomeres by 10 percent. (3) Dr. Ornish also believed the same results would apply to women. Having your patients make small changes to their lives can have an immediate effect on how they age. Cutting out junk food and coffee, adding light daily exercise, and getting better sleep are all great ways toward living a longer, less stressful life.


  1. Are Telomeres the Key to Aging and Cancer? Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah. https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/basics/telomeres/
  2. Bergland, C. Emotional Distress Can Speed Up Cellular Aging. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201404/emotional-distress-can-speed-cellular-aging
  3. Goyanes, C. Real Proof You Can Reverse Stress and Aging. Shape Magazine. https://www.shape.com/blogs/shape-your-life/real-proof-you-can-reverse-stress-and-aging
  4. Lu, S. How Chronic Stress Is Harming Our DNA. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/chronic-stress
  5. Lavretsky H, Newhouse P. Stress, Inflammation and Aging. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3428505/