Wanna Stay Young? Ligten Up!

Stress not only contributes to heart disease and depression, it can also accelerate aging.
So if you don't want to rapidly grow old, think about lessening your load.

By Lisa James

March 2005

Any parent of adolescents knows the drill: Teenager comes in way after curfew, mom or dad gives the raising-teens-is-stressful-beyond-belief speech, the one that ends with those famous words, “YOU’RE GIVING ME GRAY HAIR!”

Those words are truer than you might think. Not only does stress contribute to a host of health problems, but evidence indicates it actually sends the body’s clock into hyperdrive, speeding up the rate at which cells age and die. And it’s not just parenting stress, either—it’s the kids and the job and the bills and the endless to-do list and…well, you get the idea.

The problem is that the way our bodies learned to deal with highly demanding situations—by releasing a flood of stress hormones to enable flight from, or fight with, that human-consuming critter in yonder tree—was perfect in a simple eat-or-be-eaten world, and still works wonders in times of life-threatening crisis today.

But most of us don’t live on the edge of survival anymore. Now we find ourselves enmeshed in a complex web of commitments and relationships, many of which directly compete with each other for our attention. Throw in the impossible expectations—look great, make tons of money, be an A+ parent and spouse—fostered by our media-soaked environment and you have a recipe for chronic stress, the type that ages you faster.

No wonder more than half of the folks queried in a survey by eDiets.com said they felt older than their years. Why? “Too much stress” finished second only to inactivity as the cited reason. “Chronological age is how old you are in calendar years,” explains Shelly Bowen of RealAge, Inc.

“Biological age [what Bowen’s company calls RealAge] is how old your body is based on lifestyle and genetics.” (Compute your RealAge at www.RealAge.com.) “About half of the RealAge population has indicated that they are under some kind of stress or anxiety,” Bowen says. “Of those that took the RealAge test, their RealAges averaged three years older overall.”

Stressed-Out Cells

To understand how stress accelerates aging, we have to peer inside the cell, where protein molecules called telomeres reside on the ends of chromosomes. Whenever the cell—and its chromosomes—divides, the telomeres dwindle; when there’s no telomere left, the cell dies.

Knowing this, scientists at UC San Francisco looked at cells taken from two groups of mothers, one made up of moms whose kids were healthy, the other of mothers caring for youngsters suffering from disorders such as cerebral palsy. Telomeres in the second group shriveled measurably as these women dealt with the significant stress of caring for their ill children; cells from women suffering the highest levels of strain showed a biological age ten years greater than women who enjoyed relatively low-stress lives (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 12/7/04).

The cells examined in the UCSF study were white blood cells, which are part of the immune system. This probably explains why high levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, have been linked to reduced immune protection among older folks (Aging Cell 8/04); aging seems to stimulate cortisol release more strongly in women than in men. What’s more, an immune system miswired by stress can produce inflammatory substances that scientists are coming to believe play an important role in many disorders we associate with aging, including cardiovascular disease and arthritis.

Stress also contributes to what have come to be known as “senior moments” (as in “Where are my KEYS!?”). “You lay down memories in two different areas: the amygdala for body memory—unconscious behavior—and the hippocampus for memories you can talk about,” says Mona Lisa Schultz, MD, PhD, neuropsychiatrist and author of The New Feminine Brain (Free Press; in August). “Chronic stress—trying to control what’s uncontrollable and feeling helpless and hopeless—over the long term can shrink your hippocampus. You’re left to use your spare-tire memory, your amygdala. That’s when you’re tired all the time and you act in a knee-jerk fashion—you’re on memory autopilot.”

Pressure Points

The list of what stresses us out seems to grow every day. One of the more recent additions is what’s being called “caregiver stress”; ironically, as people live longer with illnesses that would have killed them quickly in earlier times, the folks who care for them are under severe duress. In one study, people who cared for Alzheimer’s patients saw their blood levels of IL-6, an immune-system substance that promotes inflammation, skyrocket—and remain elevated for up to three years after their loved ones died.

Caregiver stress often intersects with the number-one source of stress—the workplace. It’s a world where people deal with both increased workloads and job insecurity. No wonder the number of people who took sick time to deal with stress-related ills tripled from 1996 to 2000 (an estimated 1 million workers a day) and experts estimate that 40% of job turnover is caused by stress. When folks drag their tired selves from a demanding job to a home life that may include both child care and caregiving for an aging parent, the pressure takes its toll: Overall achiness, digestive disturbances, extreme exhaustion, that spacey, “who-am-I-now” feeling. The extra aging engendered by all that stress eventually shows up on the outside.

“When you go to your high school reunion, you can tell people who’ve had a hard life—their skin is leathery, they look fried,” notes Dr. Schultz. “You can see the impact of stress on their brains and bodies.”

Attitude Adjustments

Giving stress the slip starts with learning the difference between stress and challenge, since we all need to be goaded a bit to keep us learning and growing. As Dr. Schultz observes, “people who are phobic and obsessive” are just as prone to aging’s effects as those who are overwhelmed and stressed—”how much stimulus you need depends on your own setpoint for challenge and change.”

You may have to consider making one of those big, but intimidating, changes we tend to avoid for fear of failure: switching careers, finding a new mate, answering your heart’s deepest call. A little more challenge today may help reduce stress further down the road.

Getting over the lone-ranger mentality is a big stressbuster. “Strong friendships can make your RealAge from 2 to 30 years younger,” says Shelly Bowen. “And long-term, loving relationships can make your RealAge as much as 6.5 years younger.” Maybe you and a pal could work out together; exercise not only tones your heart and lungs, it also helps you fight the aging effects of stress. Other popular sources of stress relief include meditation, yoga and such bodywork therapies as massage.

It’s important to fight stress on a nutritional level. A good multivitamin can help counteract the stress-induced loss of such key nutrients as vitamins B, C and D. Dr. Schultz recommends L-actyl-carnitine: “It’s very good for memory and attention at high doses (500 mg two to three times daily).”

She also favors SAMe, 400 to 1600 mg a day on an empty stomach, saying that SAM-e is “extremely helpful in helping your brain produce seratonin, dopamine and norepinephrine [brain chemicals that control mood]. It really, really works.”

If you’re a coffee fiend, try laying off the java for a while—a number of complementary practitioners say caffeine prods the adrenal glands to produce cortisol instead of DHEA, a hormone that helps the body fight aging. Switch to herbal tea or coffee substitutes based on grains and herbs.

So if your mirror reflects a graying, storm-tossed stranger you’re not sure you recognize, don’t despair. Getting a handle on stress (and remembering that your stay-out teen will grow up, eventually) can help slow the aging process.

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