Cool It Now: Stress Makes Life’s Clock Tick Faster While Chilling Out Slows It Down
There’s a saying, “stress is a silent killer.” But beyond causing overtly detrimental conditions like high blood pressure and weak immune systems, stress can creep into our lives to trigger muscle tension, jaw clenching, digestive problems, irritability, sadness, and trouble having sex.
On top of all that, a new study now shows that stress speeds up our biological aging – the gradual, progressive decline that occurs with advancing chronological age, causing morbidity and disability. Using algorithms called “epigenetic clocks” that infer biological age, researchers from Yale University show that cumulative stress is associated with accelerated aging in healthy, young-to-middle-aged adults. Published in Translational Psychiatry, these findings point to multiple potentially modifiable biobehavioral targets of intervention that may reduce or prevent the harmful effects of stress on aging and long-term health outcomes.
“These results support the popular notion that stress makes us age faster,” said lead author Zachary Harvanek, a resident in the Yale Department of Psychiatry, “but they also suggest a promising way to possibly minimize these adverse consequences of stress through strengthening emotion regulation and self-control.”
Health Falls With Mounting Stress
There is mounting evidence that chronic stress negatively influences health by hastening the aging process of cells. Stress, for example, shortens the length of protective DNA caps and the activity of the enzymes that maintain them, which is influenced by behavioral and psychological resilience – the ability to recover from being perturbed or knocked off balance.
Recent research, however, has shown contradictory results when it comes to whether traits that lead to resilience enhance or exacerbate the impact of stress on health. While these findings imply that resilient traits may play a role in modulating the link between chronic stress and aging, this had not yet been investigated in a healthy population sample.
Stress Makes a Mess of Aging
Here, Harvanek and colleagues from Yale University focused on the effect of personal-level psychological abilities, such as self-control and emotion regulation, on stress and aging by focusing on three questions. First, is cumulative stress related to markers of biological aging in a healthy young-to-middle-aged community population? Second, if stress is associated with biological aging, does stress-related physiology contribute to stress-associated biological aging? And finally, how do psychological factors that contribute to resilience modulate these relationships?
To measure biological aging, the researchers used a computational tool called GrimAge, which picks up on markers previously linked to increased morbidity and mortality. Though this study included a generally healthy, young-to-middle-aged community population, the analysis still identified a significant relationship between cumulative stress and age acceleration (as measured by the speed of GrimAge marker accumulation).
The population was taking no prescription medications for any medical conditions, nor were they suffering from current mental illnesses, including depressive or anxious symptoms. To the best of the Yale researchers’ knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the impact of cumulative stress on epigenetic aging in a healthy community sample without significant physical or mental illness. The study includes obese individuals and a small number of individuals with risky drinking levels at a frequency in line with those in a community population.
Even after accounting for demographic and behavioral 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. In this study, GrimAge correlated with physical and psychological health symptoms, and the relationship between stress and age acceleration is most prominent in those with poor emotion regulation and was related to behavioral factors such as smoking and body mass index (BMI). Both stress and age acceleration were associated with changes in insulin resistance, which was moderated via self-control.
Stop Chillin’ Like a Villain
This study suggests stress may play a role in accelerated aging even prior to the onset of chronic diseases. Notably, this study is the first to identify factors that contribute to psychological resilience as potential modulators of such an effect, as the relationship between stress and aging was strongly moderated by resilience factors, including self-control and emotion regulation. These results suggest an association between stress, physiology, and accelerated aging moderated by emotion regulation and self-control.
Harvanek and colleagues suggest that this opens the possibility that the distinction between the effects of stress on pathologic and non-pathologic samples may be along a continuum. So, preventive interventions that decrease stress and improve resilience may help maintain long-term mental and physical health. Overall, these findings point to multiple potentially modifiable biobehavioral targets of intervention that may reduce or prevent the harmful effects of stress on aging and long-term health outcomes.
“We all like to feel like we have some agency over our fate,” said senior author Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry at Yale. “So it is a cool thing to reinforce in people’s minds that we should make an investment in our psychological health.”
So, if you haven’t done so, perhaps now would be a great time to set up a checklist for a healthy lifestyle.
Harvanek ZM, Fogelman N, Xu K, Sinha R. Psychological and biological resilience modulates the effects of stress on epigenetic aging. Transl Psychiatry. 2021;11(1):601. Published 2021 Nov 27. doi:10.1038/s41398-021-01735-7